“True Friends,” an exhibition of works by Nancy Waller (1918-2017) dedicated to her close friend, Ellen St. John (1925-2023), opened on Friday, March 10 at The Art Garage. The show is intended to help build awareness of, and raise funds for, the new Ellen St. John Peacemaker Award. This award will be given annually to a graduating Cooperstown Central School student who is recognized as a peacemaker by the school community. Funds will be managed by the Friends Fiduciary, a Quaker investment firm. Donations will also be accepted.
St. John’s many friends include Deborah Dickinson, one of the driving forces behind establishing the award.
“The hope is to keep her loving, creative spirit alive by investing in young people who show their own capacity for creating possibilities for peaceful solutions to conflict in school and the wider community—and who plan to continue with peacemaking efforts in the future.”
An application for the Ellen St. John Peacemaker Award will be available in the Cooperstown Central School guidance office.
The show of watercolors and other art forms by Nancy Waller will be open on Saturdays through April 8 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and by special appointment via text or phone call to Art Garage Director Sydney Waller at (315) 941-9607. The Art Garage is located at 689 Beaver Meadow Road, Cooperstown.
Ellen St. John was a beloved member of the wider Cooperstown area, known as a quiet but powerful instigator of change to make a positive difference in many people’s lives. She started the Cooperstown Food Pantry and supported countless individuals and causes with a concern for peace and social justice. Trained as a nurse, Ellen could see peoples’ needs in ways that prompted caring responses not only from herself but others in her community. She regularly organized letter-writing campaigns to elected representatives on peace and social justice, recommended actions, and made trips to the state capitol and Washington D.C. to lobby for justice for all and support of refugees.
Mother of four and wife of Fred St. John, Ellen was of slight build and soft voice, but known to be fearless and strong in determination and spirit. She hosted the food bank in the Presbyterian Church basement for a number of years that today nurtures many in an ongoing endeavor. For 19 years she stood weekly in the peace vigil in front of the only federal building in Cooperstown, its post office, in all kinds of weather and with a dedicated cadre of fellow vigilers, including Nancy Waller.
“Bearing witness to the brutality and futility of war with her homemade signs and open mind and heart, she listened carefully to others with respect, and challenged us to work for peace locally, nationally, and internationally,” noted Dotty Hudson, who often joined in the peaceful demonstrations.
According to other fellow vigilers, Ellen—with carefully thought-through mess-ages on her signs—did not shrink to share her views on how U.S. money and policies are responsible for so many deaths and atrocities in far off countries. Her signs asked pertinent questions and offered positive action, they said.
Nancy, a longtime pacifist with a flair for beauty and color, dressed for the vigil weekly with an awareness that not only young students or older “hippies” need to speak truth to power—that it was important for everyone in the wider community to take a stand.
Ellen St. John and Nancy Waller had much in common. Both lived into their late 90s. Both grew up in a “long ago” China, the children of educational missionaries who taught at Yenching University, Beijing, and Nanjing University, respectively. As children, they experienced the tremendous wonders of living in another culture and knowing they were truly “world citizens.” Both also experienced the trauma of a brutal war. Their shared history of growing up in China brought a sense of seeing themselves as part of the “we” in a different culture, not dividing humanity into “us” vs. “them.” Both women were also active in the Otsego County Jail Ministry for years and in many other justice and social action expressions of vision and care extending far beyond geographical and cultural borders.
The “True Friends” exhibition features landscapes, seascapes and still lifes—mostly watercolors—from the 1950s through 2012. Nancy’s subjects include Nova Scotia, the West, Maine, the Pyrenees, the French Alps and, closer to home, South Kent, Connecticut, Cherry Valley and Cooperstown. This is the second benefit exhibition of Nancy Waller’s works: the first, in 2017, benefitted three of her social justice charities, including the food pantry.
Though better known for her memoir, “My Nanking Home, 1918-1937,” Nancy enjoyed art as a creative outlet. When her children were young and life was hectic, making art was a centering activity. She enjoyed working with fellow artists in a companionable manner. Some art on display, for instance, was done in her friend Carlita Hunt’s studio, where she learned to make silkscreen prints and batik. Nancy studied technique informally and persistently with different artists in the Kent area and later enjoyed classes at the Cooperstown Art Association. She exhibited in group shows at the Kent Art Association, the Roseboom Historical Association and the Cooperstown Art Association, among others, ceasing to paint only when her eyesight failed in her late 80s.
According to organizers, similar peacemaker awards exist in other schools in the mid-state area, including Binghamton and Norwich, granting recipients anywhere from $125.00-$500.00 annually.
“We hope Ellen’s contagion of kindness, love, and creative response to conflict will continue. Establishing the Peacemaker Award is a part of that process,” said Dickinson.
Dickinson also noted that Friends Fiduciary does not invest in the military industrial complex, and said St. John would appreciate that the proceeds the fund will generate “will not come from the sale of those things in our culture which lead to death rather than the celebration of life.”
To learn more about contributing to the fund in support of the Ellen St. John Peacemaker Award, contact Deborah Dickinson, another vigiler, at (606) 435-9951 or PO Box 238, Fly Creek, NY, 13337. Dickinson will also be on hand at The Art Garage Gallery on Saturday, April 8 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., to discuss the award and answer any questions.
Sydney L. Waller is the daughter of Nancy Waller and the founder/director of The Art Garage, a private pop-up gallery.