Introduction


Presented in reverse chronology, this history stretches from the present back to the Fellowship's 1970 founding, and beyond.
(See "Blog Archive" in the sidebar below.) It draws from many sources, including The Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the Internet Archive, the former Fellowship of Friends wiki project, cult education and awareness sites, news archives, and from the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship.

The portrait that emerges stands in stark contrast to sanitized versions presented on the Fellowship's array of
alluring websites, and on derivative sites created by Burton's now-estranged
disciple, Asaf Braverman.

Friday, December 26, 1986

An Unlikely Art Colony

[Ed. - The original article was accompanied by three photos by Alex Clausen. Not included here is a photo with the caption, "A winery is under construction for the community's own label." Images below are photographs of photocopies of microfilm images of the original newspaper article. Thus the poor quality.]

Curator Brian Flynn in the Goethe Academy at the Fellowship of Friends community of Renaissance

An Unlikely Art Colony


Commune in the Sierra foothills


San Francisco Chronicle
by Steven Winn

Marysville, Yuba County

Standing among the silk rugs and the 17th century paintings and (?) century Chinese temple vases in the Goethe Academy's main salon after a performance of "Antigone," a newcomer to Renaissance tends to be greeted in one of two ways.

"Pretty surprised to find all this out here, aren't you?" someone might ask. Or, with an offer to refill your champagne flute, a member of the host Fellowship of Friends will remark, "You look awfully familiar. I'm sure we've met somewhere."

It would be difficult, after a daylong visit here, to disagree with the local boosterish sentiments implied in the first question. A shared sense of familiarity, however, doesn't come quite so easily.

This 250-member community called Renaissance is located in the Sierra foothills 25 miles northeast of Marysville. In addition to the Goethe Academy, with its Ionic columns out front, a formal French garden in the rear and a cherry-paneled library, art collection and formal dining room inside, Renaissance includes 365 acres of terraced vineyards, 30 acres of orchards, wood and metal shops, a Town Hall for meetings and performances and a lodge.

Incongruities abound. At the entrance to the Court of the Caravans, a modest little village of 24 Airstream trailers that houses some of the Fellowship members, a classical bronze sculpture gleams in a spotlight. The winery under construction on a hillside nearby has been designed and built entirely by Fellowship members, most of them without any previous experience. The Fellowship hopes to begin marketing its own wine, under the Renaissance label, some time in the next several years.

If all this civilization at the snap of a finger seems a little unlikely to the outsider - Renaissance was founded 16 years ago by a Walnut Creek schoolteacher and tennis instructor named Robert Burton who had read a lot of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky - Fellowship members accept it as the natural outgrowth of a spiritual and philosophical system that mandates excellence in all pursuits, regardless of their novelty to the practitioner.

Michael Goodwin is a European-trained musician who gave up his career as a conductor and vocal coach in German opera houses to direct the Renaissance Orchestra. Most of the members had never played an instrument until five years ago. The orchestra is currently rehearsing the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto for a performance here with the Beaux Arts Trio's Menahem Pressler as soloist.

"Negativity is destructive," says Goodwin. "We are trying to be aware of ourselves in the most complete way possible for as much of the time as we can."

There may be another community in California where the arts and some greater good are this closely identified, but it's hard to imagine a group of people being more single-minded about it than the Fellowship of Friends. Renaissance is the "heart" of the 1400-member worldwide Fellowship, with more than 20 other "centres" scattered around Western Europe and elsewhere.

Despite the evident sincerity of the members, who often describe lengthy quests for spirituality in their lives before abandoning other pursuits to live and work at Renaissance, they have not been entirely successful in communicating their aims to the outside world.

Several years ago there was a heated battle with the IRS over the group's tax status. "We are a church," as one member diplomatically explains the outcome, "in the eyes of the government." Publicity over the purchase of a new sculpture stirred up more talk of "devil worship" in Marysville a while back. And even some of the members betray a certain amount of dissonance about Renaissance.

"It does seem a little funny to me," says an actor/orchardist, "that I've ended up at this 60ish kind of commune."

Part of the problem in getting a handle on what this arts-oriented community is all about had to do with a certain closed-door attitude about all the creativity that goes on here in the first place.

Most of the recitals, concerts and even the full-length opera performances are open to Fellowship members only. Gorgeous letter-press programs, like most of the other publications issuing from the Renaissance print shop, are rarely seen by the public. The Goethe Academy's art collection, which includes a 15th century Florentine tempera by Jacobo de Sellajo and a still life tentatively attributed to Caravaggio by one scholar, is open to the public "by appointment" on Mondays and Tuesdays only.

The current public performances of Sophocles' "Antigone," then, represent an unusual Christmas-week outpouring at Renaissance. The production opened Tuesday and ran through yesterday and continues January 1-3.

As theater, this "Antigone" approximates what one might expect to find on a college campus, with a few adept or somewhat rusty professors joining forces with a company of students of widely differing abilities. Robert Taylor is an icily focused Creon. James Broadfield delivers a compelling, reeling panic.

Maria Machado, a German-born Greek stage and film actress who is a member of the Paris Fellowship Centre, seems to be in another production, if not in some sort of internal Antigone trance, with a slowly quavering voice, ponderous step and rabbity eye movements.

The costumes - Nette Ornbak's classical draperies set off by a ravishing mottled cape for Teiresias - and bronzed masks (by Sonia Stefani and Stephen Merryweather) are splendid.

Beyond the artistry or its limitations, there was a special air about Tuesday's performance - an odd stillness in the audience before the show, a strange discontinuity of styles and effects on stage and perhaps most striking of all, a kind of seamless unselfconscious poise among the performers at even the most feeble points in the staging.

In a printed interview, co-director William Page observed, "It is clear that we have a certain affinity of interest with the Greeks. This is what the Fellowship audience can understand, and what a Fellowship group of actors can portray that no other modern company can portray: the living idea of a man having a relationship with the gods, with all that it implies."

Fellowship members stoutly deny that their community is one of retreat or withdrawal. "If you can't survive in the world," one of them said, "then you can't survive." Others muse about the possibility of outdoor summer theater festivals at Renaissance someday.

For now, the preoccupation with the arts here seems a curiously enclosed affair. Beauty, at Renaissance, is in the eyes of a handful of beholders.

Public performances of Sophocles 'Antigone' are being held in the Town Hall.

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