Alumni Spotlight: Jay Craven (’62)

September 13th, 2021
Category: Alumni News

Jay Craven (‘62), is a filmmaker, activist, educator, founder of many community arts organizations, and founding producer of the touring youth circus, Circus Smirkus. During our interview, he alluded to episodes from a life lived in the zeitgeist, from organizing John Lennon’s rock tour against the Vietnam War, to moving in the same NYC Pop art circles as Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith, to making a film about literacy in Nicaragua after the revolution. Now toward the end of his career and writing a memoir, Jay reflects that his life has been “compelled by an activist instinct. The seeds of that really go back to my time at Plymouth.”

Jay, whose name was Jay Clark when he was a student here, attended PMFS for second, third, and fourth grades along with his brother Keith. Jay put himself through high school at The Hill School by working on the grounds crew there starting at 12 years old, claiming he was 13. 

At Boston University, he was elected student body president and selected to go on a student peace delegation to South and North Vietnam during the war. This resulted in the People’s Peace Treaty, outlining terms the students agreed needed to be met in order to end the war. Upon his return to the US, Jay travelled the country for six months as one of principal organizers of the now-historic 1971 May Day protest in DC. This protest would see more than 50,000 people camping in West Potomac Park in an effort to shut down the government. The demonstration ended with the largest mass arrest for civil disobedience in American history. Jay’s next job was organizing a national tour for John Lennon to raise money for the antiwar movement, but they were only able to play one concert before President Nixon shut them down.

As the war wound down, Jay moved to New York City and fell in with artists, poets, musicians, and dancers. There was “constantly an opportunity to discover something new,” he recalled. He took inspiration from the culture around him, and wanted to share the community-building power of the arts with others. Jay moved to Vermont where he became a high school film studies teacher and in 1975 founded Catamount Arts, an organization that screened movies around rural parts of the state that otherwise had no access to film. Jay soon expanded Catamount Arts into a performing arts center and attracted performances by the likes of Miles Davis, BB King, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash. After completing an MA in Media Arts from Goddard College, Jay followed his belief in lifelong learning and investing in his community by starting GRACE in 1979, a program helping outsider artists like nursing home residents create works of visual art “based on instinct.” Some of this art is now in the Smithsonian’s collection.

In 1987, Jay gave a friend the idea to start Circus Smirkus, a program that pairs students aged 10-18 with mentors for circus training and touring summer performances. Jay helped get the now-famous organization off the ground and produced its first two seasons and tours. Next, Jay started Kingdom County Productions, his own film studio, in answer to his question, “Why should Hollywood have a monopoly on the stories that get told?” He draws on the “historical imagination of place” to tell stories set in and inspired by Vermont, and has made over 15 feature-length films. Many of these films were created as part of his “Semester Cinema” project, where students from colleges all over the US collaborate with professionals to create a film over the course of a semester. Jay retired last year from teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, and will be taking Semester Cinema independent, with the next film being a multiracial narrative set in Vermont during the American Revolution. He is also busy curating film festivals and producing performing art series.

Jay’s years at PMFS were “crucial” in helping him through a difficult time in his childhood and exposing him to ideas that would shape his life. “[PMFS] introduced me to politics, reading, [and the] practice of the Quakers,” Jay said. “There were no Quakers in my family, but I was thrilled to go to […] Meeting every Thursday.” He has fond memories of being on the “Safety Patrol,” wearing a yellow belt and badge to help fellow students cross the street to buy root beer barrels at the corner store. Other highlights were experiential learning and field trips, things like making butter and cheese and going to see Listerine bottles being made at Diamond Glassworks. And like every Plymouth student, he remembers the great friends he made and fun times at the Strawberry Festival. 

“All my teachers I thought were mysterious and eccentric and cool in their own way, but also figures of authority,” Jay recalled. But there was one teacher in particular that made a big impact on his life: Librarian Mary Knowles, who was put on trial for allegedly being a Communist during the McCarthy era, and whom Plymouth Monthly Meeting hired and supported when many other institutions considered her “too dangerous.” Mary Knowles had once been a labor organizer for oil workers in Louisiana, but was not a member of the Communist Party at the time she was “named.” “I arrived as a second grader in the midst of all of this,” said Jay, “and became very aware very quickly of what was going on.” She eventually won on appeal, and had a 25-year career at the William Jeanes Memorial Library, which was housed in what is now the Music/Admissions/Development building. Jay says his weekly classes with Mrs. Knowles turned him on to books, politics, and especially civil rights during a time when schools were integrating. “I loved her,” Jay smiled, “She was fabulous.” Mary Knowles and Quakerism inspired Jay’s later protest of the Vietnam war, and lifelong activism through the arts. “My time at Plymouth Meeting Friends School was very important for me,” Jay said. “I’ve been a teacher myself for a long time in addition to making movies[…] That path really took shape as a result of going to PMFS.” 

For more about Jay and his films, visit the website of his film production company

For more about PMFS Librarian Mary Knowles, read this article in Main Line Today and look at “The Plymouth Controversy” pamphlet, written in 1957 by the Civil Liberties Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting: