Tell It Slant — With Lemonade: A Book Launch at Haverford

Adapted from Tell It Slant, by Emma Lapsansky-Werner, with Chuck Fager:

George Fox: not a friend of the arts.

For most of the three-plus centuries since the founding of Quakerism, Quakers had viewed the arts as snares and “distractions” from listening to the Word-of-the-Divine within.

George Fox threw down the marker as early as 1678:

All ye Poets, Jesters, rhimers, makers of Verses and Ballads, who bend your wits to please novelties, light minds, who delights in jests and toyes, more than in the simple naked truth which you should be united to, you are for the undoing of many poor souls, it is your work to tickle up the ears of people with your jests and toyes; this proceeds from a wrong heart … which is a shame to all that be in the modesty and pure sincerity & truth and cleanness of mind. …  

Fox had preached against the visual arts, too: 

And therefore, all friends and people, pluck down your images; I say, pluck them out of your houses, walls, and signs, or other places, that none of you be found imitators of his Creator, whom you should serve and worship. . . .

Nevertheless, over time, exceptions were made — especially for didactic doggerel poetry.

Published anonymously in 1846 (thought to have been created by Quaker sisters Hannah and Mary Townsend), this abolitionist alphabet is an example of “useful” Quaker art.

Many traditional Friends admired the poetry of New England abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, and the novel Friends at their Own Fireside, published by Sarah Stickney Ellis in 1858. Like the widely hailed Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which featured Quaker characters, but was not written by a Quaker: Lucretia Mott refused to read it, as novels were “frivolous”; but her husband James literally “burned the midnight oil” to finish turning the pages). Much of the early visual and verbal imagery about Quakers stressed the social influence and value of their stern morality.

Yet though the Quaker freeze-out of the arts began to thaw in the late nineteenth century, and was laid aside by most in the twentieth, the arts still remain something of a stepchild in many corners of Quakerdom.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier: he wasn’t exactly “dope,” but the guy knew how to spin some rhymes.

In the early 1990s, a Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts (FQA) came together around Philadelphia, organizing small exhibits at the Yearly Meeting and occasional dramatic performances based on Quaker history.

While working at Pendle Hill (1994-97), Chuck joined its board, and by 1998 was Clerk. Hoping to extend its reach beyond Philadelphia, FQA decided to organize a gallery at the  FGC Gathering, the largest assembly of U. S. Friends. It was an idea which had not yet occurred to its planners during the Gathering’s hundred-plus years. Nevertheless, a band of FQA enthusiasts, including Chuck, arrived at a college campus in River Falls, Wisconsin, that summer of 1998, a couple of days early, eager to open this new chapter.

That “way” did not open smoothly. When Chuck searched out a promised campus gallery, he saw through its windows that it was filled, floor to ceiling, with odds and ends of furniture — and it was locked. As it turned out, the Drama Department had recently claimed jurisdiction over the gallery, as storage space for scenery and furniture for upcoming productions. 

FQA Founder Minnie Jane Ham, turning lemons into the original Lemonade Gallery, River Falls, Wisconsin, 1998.

When the Gathering staff found another “available” room, it had different issues: it was being renovated, wallboard torn off, bare studs exposed. Piles of debris and dirt covered much of the floor. It had windows — but they did not open. The room’s air conditioning was on the blink, and no help against the hot-and-humid Wisconsin-summer weather.

Chuck remembered that the FQA crew — after spending some time in fuming distress and confused frustration — had a collective “opening” (Quaker-speak for “inspiration”): they would make a gallery from this unheavenly mess, come hell or dehydration.

A Minneapolis art supply store yielded large rolls of colored paper to cover the bare walls at eye level, and other supplies for guerilla art to put on it. After two days of sweat and grit, the trash had been removed, the floor cleaned, much of the walls covered, paintings and sculpture mounted, and a reception set for early afternoon. 

When, with barely an hour to go, the air conditioning sputtered on, it was taken as a sign. Cool air and chilled lemonade greeted the large crowd at the opening, and The Lemonade Gallery was born. It became the hit of the week, and the stuff of FQA legend.

Despite various ups and downs, the arts have since had a place (even if only virtual, in the pandemic depths) at the FGC Gathering for a quarter-century.

Which brings us to Haverford College (near Philadelphia) and FGC 2024.

The Gathering, FGC’s signature annual project, has not prospered in the 21st century: attendance in 2000 was more than 1950, but since then costs had steadily risen,  and registration slid to less than 500; the pandemic and other forces took their toll.

FGC did marketing studies; there was much self-flagellation and finger-pointing. But similar declines were happening to most churches in the USA. Quakers like to think they’re different (aka better than) other denominations; but when it came to demographic shrinking, the data said: not so much, Friends.

On the Main Line, all the best sidewalks lead to Haverford.

In hopes of turning this around, planners decided to bring the Gathering “home” to Philadelphia. (FGC was actually invented in Chicago, and held its first “general conference” in Ohio . . . but that’s another story.)  There are a hundred-plus meetings in the region, and the bronze visage of William Penn gazes benevolently down from City Hall (even though his spot is currently a place of exile because of his connection to slavery). Genteel Haverford College was selected as the site, and they figured attendance would bounce back.

So it has, somewhat: unofficial attendance numbers are around a thousand, though with commuters and Zoomers, comparisons aren’t easy. Is it the much yearned for turnaround? Too soon to tell.  But to add to the familiar ambiance, planners decided to have an art center, and bestowed the now legendary Lemonade monicker on it.

Early reports indicate it was a busy place: numerous art works were on display; an open mic evening attracted a flock of performers; and there was even a double book launch, on Seventh Month Fourth, while  the outside world was trying to soothe its existential anxieties —or at least be briefly distracted by fireworks celebrating the nation’s refusal to be ruled by a king.

Oh wait —
Maybe Seventh Month Fourth will soon be renamed Royal Restoration Day. . . .

But enough of such idle jesting and worldly talk.

The launch featured a presentation on a forthcoming book by Jennifer Elam, Dancing Through the Fires, on  trauma and creative recovery; and Tell It Slant, a new biography of Chuck Fager, by Haverford Emerita professor Emma Lapsansky-Werner, with himself.

As his part of the Tell It Slant launch, Chuck (still at home in Carolina) contributed a brief YouTube video about the book. Readers can watch the whole video now (about 11 minutes) at this link.

Meantime, here’s a new comment on Tell It Slant by another reader, author & activist Chris Lombardi:

“This capacious account, narrated by two notable Quaker writers, is like diving into a river crammed with histories, in all possible meanings of the word — from personal history, including Fager’s peripatetic love/family lives, to the arc of HISTORY from the civil rights movement to 21st-century wars, The narrative engages you in all its stops — whether it’s his spiritual journey from young Catholic to Quaker elder, the internecine conflicts of various branches of the Society of Friends, or the travails of publishing. 
Chuck speaking during the launch; and the cover.

Being me, I was particularly drawn to his telling of his years in Fayetteville, North Carolina, whose Quaker House has been a refuge for dissenting servicemembers, and that section didn’t disappoint: it even includes a transcript of his one interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly at the height of the Iraq War. But I was equally drawn into his stories about becoming a scribe-for-hire for MLK in Selma, and about turning those experiences into stories for mass consumption/education (including in 1984 a 1960s trivia board game “Sixtomania”).

The rest of the river (like James Joyce’s “Riverrun” ) is warm and welcoming; it might trip you by and by, but is warm and welcoming, and you’ll never be bored.

— Christine Lombardi, Author, I Ain’t Marching Anymore

How to order.

Excerpts  from Tell It Slant are online at:

–Excerpt #1: A Quaker’s Life in Our “Interesting,” Tumultuous Times:
— Excerpt #2: “Fighting for A Future”:
— Excerpt #3: A Whippersnapper & His Elders
— Excerpt #4: “Tell It Slant”: Author Emma Lapsansky-Werner Speaks
— Excerpt #5: San Francisco & “Going Naked for a Sign “ — or at least a job


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