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CLASS OF 78
When Culture and a Community
Church Intersect, the Spires the Limit
Founder Lorene Cary C'78 G'78 in the venue for the program, the Church
of the Advocate, with paintings by Richard Watson (rear, left) and
Walter Edmonds (right).
Photo by Candace diCarlo
Usually when you go to an arts eventbe
it the ballet, a bookstore reading or a hip-hop concertthe people there,
notes Lorene Cary C78 G78, have a resume very similar to you. You kind
of know what everybody makes and where they come from and about what their
education has been and what theyve studied and what they agree with.
not the case, however, with Art Sanctuary, a program founded by Cary which
showcases African-American arts and letters, using a historic North Philadelphia
church as its venue.
any given event there might be book-club members sharing the pews with
schoolchildren, grandparents and professionals, as well as adults struggling
to read or make the transition from homelessness. The feeling is completely
different. The sense of community is much larger, Cary says, because
the gathering is not just based on the same class interests.
Art Sanctuary was wrapping up its first full year of events this past
spring, Cary, a writer and lecturer in the English department at Penn,
took some time to explain how it got started:
tour for her memoir Black Ice about eight years ago, she began
observing the different ways that communities used the appearance of a
not very well-known writer. One rainy night in Rochester, N.Y., she
read in a church filled with more than 500 people. The series, called
Rochester Arts and Players, featured a mix of popular and lesser-known
writers, and people took out subscriptions for it, like the theater or
ballet. I loved the way this worked, Cary recalls, leaning forward in
her chair in her Bennett Hall office. I thought to myself later, wow,
wouldnt it be exciting to have such a series that focused on African-American
the next several years, Cary talked to friends and colleagues, who agreed
it was a great idea and said, Why dont you make it happen? She
continued to hone her vision with input from numerous community members,
as well as advice and seed money from local organizations.
hired an enthusiastic staff and last spring began bringing in writers
and poets like John Edgar Wideman C63 Hon86 (See story on page 40),
Terry McMillan and Sonia Sonchez, along with painters, hip-hop dancers,
jazz musicians and a photographer. This seasons diverse offerings ranged
from an animation workshop for kids and a conference on rape to a retrospective
on the Sit-Ins of the 1960s and an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet
into a hip-hop ballet. Just as the Norton Anthology of African-American
Literature has a CD in it, because you cant read some of this literature
without hearing the blues, I thought that, similarly, you cant do such
a series thats just reading.
programs setting, in the Church of the Advocate at 1801 West Diamond
Street, has been critical to its impact, says Cary. The building itself
is awe-inspiring. Its a six-story-high, French-Gothic cathedral, full
of these murals of black struggle. A National Historic Landmark, the
Advocate was the site of Black Power meetings in Philadelphia as well
as the ordination of the first 11 women in the Episcopal church.
it was originally intended as a worship space, Cary explains, it does
very clearly say that art is about transformation; it is not only about
decoration. That its [there] to empower and ennoble the spiritand touch
you. And the grandeur of all that space says its big enough to entertain
conflict, she adds. So if we have a hip-hop conference and one person
believes one thing and one person believes another, its big enough to
disagree; its OK.
get the word out, the group has held house parties at which they sold
annual subscriptions like Tupperware (full scholarships are available
for those with financial need and people can also payaccording to their
meansto see individual performances); posted announcements in the church
neighborhoods newsletter; done radio spots; and relied on generous word
of mouth. Theyve also collaborated with community organizations to ensure
that an economically diverse mix of people attend events. To this end,
Cary introduced a graduate course at Penn in the spring called Teaching
Literature in Community. Her students spent the first part of the semester
reading Widemans memoir Brothers and Keepers and studying alternative-education
texts. Then they split up to teach the book at various community sites,
including a middle school, a transitional program for people who have
been homeless and a literacy organization. The culminating event, attended
by all these groups as well as the general public, was Widemans visit
to Art Sanctuary in April.
was a man in the audience from Project H.O.M.E. who said that hed never
been able to focus in his life. He had an extended period of homelessness,
and hes now in this GED class. He said what he learned from reading the
book and listening to Wideman was that, Your experiences make you who
you are and that you can write about who you are by writing about those
experiences and thats enough. Essentially it was this man really grasping
the importance of memoir and identity in our current post-modern life
and taking them in as a possible tool in his own intellectual development.
the vaulted spiritual space encourages local folks to let their own creative
ambitions soar, it simultaneously provides grounding to writers to meet
the range of people who love their work, Cary says. She celebrates the
contrast, for example, between Dr. Farah Griffin, associate professor
of English at Penn, giving a scholarly introduction to Kristin Lattanys
latest novel and some lady from some book club coming in and exclaiming
about the same text, with a loud clap, I thought that was so fuunn-ny!
I had to laugh.
are in the works for more community-based teaching projects. In addition,
Art Sanctuary will bring its first artist-in-residence, an African stilt
walker, to North Philadelphia this fall to work with an after˝ school
program. Writers groups have also been formed, adding another dimension
to the series, which Cary hopes will one day thrive without her.
a section of the city in need of economic and educational sustenance,
Cary recognizes all of these programs to be dessert items. But she believes
the enrichment that comes from interacting with artists on your home turf
can have a powerful effect on a neighborhood.
means when you look at thisCary picks book after book off her office
shelfyou see this as a community that youre part of. Youve written
yourself into the history.
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Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/30/00