Chuck Fager is clerk of the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts (FQA). He has recently been appointed director of Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was at a conference of GI rights counselors in California during this e-mail interview.
Why is it important for Quaker artists to know that the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts exists?
FQA can be useful because for most of its history, the Religious Society of Friends has been openly hostile to most forms of artistic expression. One of our board members, Esther Mürer, has documented this in FQA’s booklet, Beyond Uneasy Tolerance, which includes 100 quotes on the subject from weighty Friends, arranged historically [see excerpts, pp. 11-15—eds.]. More than half of these quotes are very negative and make sobering reading.
While most Friends bodies have overcome their formal opposition to the arts as a legitimate form of religious expression, the atmosphere in very many places is still, as Esther’s title aptly puts it, one of "uneasy tolerance." In very many Quaker settings, we still don’t know where the place is for the arts in the life of our faith community.
FQA was born out of the insistence by our founder, Minnie Jane Ham, and a few others around Trenton (N.J.) Meeting, that a place needed to be made for artists and the arts in "Quaker space." That’s still our overarching project as a group.
What has FQA been doing?
One of the most important of FQA’s ongoing projects is our newsletter, Types and Shadows, which under Esther’s editorship keeps getting better and better. Like any good newsletter, it puts people in touch, and serves as a forum for sharing ideas and discussing issues. But I think it also increasingly shows what a "Quaker esthetic," as I call it, looks and feels like. (If thee isn’t sure what that means, I suggest thee look over a few recent issues.)
What has it been like to be clerk of FQA?
It’s been rewarding and exciting in most ways. Our membership has been growing. We keep learning about more Friends, old and new, who have put their creativity and spirituality together. There are some very talented musicians, photographers, poets, and sculptors among us. And we’ve been able to assist some Quaker artists in exploring their gifts and getting them noticed.
We’ve also had the sense, more than once, of helping make Quaker history. For instance, in 1998, when we created the Lemonade Art Gallery at the Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering in River Falls, Wisconsin, it was the first real art gallery in FGC’s 98-year history. We could feel ourselves pushing the envelope. (By the way, there’s a whole saga that goes with the creation of that gallery, which can be found, with photos, on our website at www.quaker.org/fqa.)
This summer, in cooperation with the Guilford College Quaker Leadership Scholars Program, we hope to sponsor a Quaker arts intern, to work with a number of Quaker artists and projects in various places. This would be, as far as we know, the first Quaker art internship ever—pushing the envelope again.
We also published a collection of recent Quaker writing called The Best of Friends: Volume One, which drew out some remarkably good work. (I could be biased in that judgment, though, since I edited it.) We hope to produce The Best of Friends: Volume Two before too long.
The overall sense I have of the arts among Friends is that there’s a tremendous amount and variety of spiritually based creative expression among us today, and that it is slowly but surely emerging into the light of day. The Society will be the stronger for it, and being Clerk of FQA gives me a ringside seat at this unfolding process.
At the same time, I see a lot of quiet ferment among many about the work of articulating the relationship between the distinctives of Quaker spirituality and the arts. How do we reconcile and meld our peculiar history of uneasiness about formal artistic expression with the undeniably esthetic qualities of Quaker faith and practice?
Some Friends know how to do this. FQA member James Turrell is a strong ex-ample. [See Phyllis Hoge’s article about the meetinghouse he designed, pp. 31-32—eds.] And here’s another example of what I mean: in last summer’s Lemonade Gallery, there were photographs by Mary Waddington of her old meetinghouse in New Jersey. In composition they were simplicity itself, unadorned windows and stairways and the like. And yet they practically radiated the kind of austere mysticism and beauty that we associate with Quaker saints like John Woolman. Those photographs quietly put Quakerism and photography together into a seamless, inspiring visual image. They took my breath away.
What are the particular difficulties that artists have being Quakers?
This is a question with both an old and a new answer. I think many Quaker artists still struggle with uncertainty and ambivalence about the place of their work in their spiritual lives and their Quaker communities.
For instance, I have read some of the journal of Edward Hicks, who painted the classic series of "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings. It’s heartrending to follow his inner struggles with what was a compulsion to paint. His Quaker culture told him this compulsion was a worthless, creaturely activity, essentially a sin. Being a faithful Friend, he did his best to give it up. Except he couldn’t, thank goodness.
We can look back at that and shake our heads. And yet, just a few years ago, I heard a very creative Friend, still alive and active, standing before a display of wonderful sculpture and insisting that he was not an artist, had nothing to do with such worldly piffle, and was only able to accept payment for his work after he had made arrangements for all the proceeds to go to a hospice in his home area. These statements were both sad and funny, because the guy was in fact a tremendous artist, but one also laboring to be a Quaker at the same time, and acknowledging that this wasn’t necessarily an easy integration to bring off.
I don’t say this to criticize anyone or any group; this ambiguity is part of our Quaker heritage, and we just have to work it through. The best artists among us will take this tension and and make things of beauty and depth and social concern out of it. Indeed, they already are. I’m grateful for the chance, through FQA, to see this process close up.
What new perspective about the arts is your new role at Quaker House giving you?
This is a good question. I’m under the weight of it, but don’t yet have an answer. Quaker House in Fayetteville, N.C., is right next to Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. military bases, and home to the Special Forces, which are the key troops fighting our current war. At Quaker House I’m trying to take the measure of U.S. militarism in the 21st century, and work at figuring out some useful Quaker responses.
In this task, which I’ve only just begun, Quaker artists should have a place, and I hope to be able to facilitate some visits, retreats, and workshops there along these lines. It’s a very intriguing and formidable challenge: what would a Quaker artist make of all the military stuff around here? I expect to find out.
For my part, as a writer I hope to get material for some more Quaker mystery novels, to add to the two I’ve already written. The material is here: plenty of crime, drugs, the culture of killing, domestic violence, and so forth. But it’s not all awful; there are surprising, positive aspects too.
Of course, Fayetteville is just an exaggerated and concentrated example of our militarized culture. I understand this better all the time. But it also reminds me every day that the Quaker Peace Testimony is a priority for us now, and for who knows how long to come. In that work, Quaker artists will have their roles to play. FQA is well aware of this, and whether at Quaker House in Fayetteville, or our local meetings, or in our studios, we hope to keep doing our bit to cultivate these gifts and celebrate them as they bear fruit.