Mary McDowell Friends School Students’ Quaker Dinner Party

How will you make Quaker history come alive for your students this year? Orla Dunstan, Director of Communications at Mary McDowell Friends School, shares one exciting project!

Mary McDowell Friends School elementary students displayed an extraordinary artwork titled Quaker Dinner Party at the school’s annual Arts Night this past May. Modeled after Judy Chicago’s seminal feminist piece The Dinner Party, the students’ collaborative project featured place settings for twelve notable Quaker women on a triangular table layout similar to the Judy Chicago piece.

Art teachers Jocelyn Russell and Bill Borman were inspired to develop this project following a field trip to the Brooklyn Museum where students saw an exhibit of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Some Quaker women, such as Elizabeth Fry and Lucretia Mott, were included in The Dinner Party. Historically, Quaker women have been prominently involved in political and social activism, including abolitionist, suffragist, and equal rights movements.

Twelve women spanning the history of Quakerism were chosen for the Quaker Dinner Party. Every student in the three oldest elementary school classes designed and created a ceramic plate and cloth placemat for one of the following Quaker women.

Sandra Boynton 
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Mariana Wright Chapman
Prudence Crandall
Margaret Fell 
Elizabeth Fry
Violet Longobardi
Mary McDowell
Maria Mitchell 

Lucretia Mott

Alice Paul 

Bonnie Raitt

The project dovetailed nicely with Mary McDowell Friends School’s on-going curriculum exploring the lives of important Quakers. Every classroom at the school is named for a Quaker. Students are introduced to ‘their Quaker’ at the beginning of each school year, and teachers may choose to do more in-depth research into the lives of the Quakers for whom their classrooms are named. Such is currently the case with the Margaret Fell and George Fox rooms. Students in these classrooms conducted research during the 2013-14 school year, and they will create illustrated biographies of Margaret Fell and George Fox this fall.  This familiarity with the study of Quaker leaders helped students to connect with the women for whom they created place settings.

The project started with a discussion about the kinds of images and/or symbols that might clearly reflect the individual women’s lives. For some women, the possible images were obvious, as was the case with Maria Mitchell who discovered a comet and Bonnie Raitt who is a musician. Others were more difficult, for instance Alice Paul who championed a women’s right to vote and went on a hunger strike to promote the cause. It was also necessary to explain to students the importance of focusing on women because women were often not considered significant nor were they acknowledged during their lifetimes.

Jocelyn compiled a portfolio of information and images about each woman, drawn from MMFS curricula and other resources, to help guide students. The packet included step-by-step instructions on designing the plates and placemats. Students began by sketching the plate and placemat together. Using the sketches as blueprints, students formed plates in clay, which they embellished or carved and glazed, and they added images and text to cloth placemats with embroidery, paint, and markers. Each place setting included the person’s name and the dates of their birth and death. A brief biography of the person and the student artist’s explanation of his or her design choices accompanied each place setting.

The Quaker Dinner Party dominated the middle of the auditorium on Arts Night, Mary McDowell Friends School’s annual school-wide celebration of student art work. The response from attendees was resoundingly positive – many parents and faculty members commented on the importance of the piece, especially those who had previously seen the Judy Chicago artwork.

Two students donated their place settings to be auctioned off at our annual benefit gala at the end of May, and a family was thrilled to purchase them for their home.


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