Published: September 12, 2000
The Shakers’ Private Art
PITTSFIELD, MASS. – Hancock Shaker Village presents the first major exhibition to explore the spiritual meaning and social context of Shaker gift drawings, an inspired and little understood body of drawings, largely created by women, that in the middle decades of the Nineteenth Century captured on paper a fervent outpouring of Shaker religious belief.
“: The Shakers’ Private Art” highlights Hancock Shaker Village’s own collection of gift drawings, which has not been seen as a whole in over a decade. With fewer than 200 gift drawings extant in public and private collections throughout the world, the Hancock collection is notable for 25 drawings of exceptional quality, range, and scale. In consideration of conservation requirements, the village plans to exhibit these works-on-paper only on a rotating basis following the nine-month-long showing of “.”
“Shakers disapproved of art, yet in the peak years of their ministry produced a great legacy of elaborately rendered drawings,” says Lawrence J. Yerdon, director of Hancock Shaker Village. “This seeming contradiction, as well as other aspects of Shaker life, can now be explored in exhibition form at the village, with the much anticipated opening of the $2.5 million Center for Shaker Studies and its two fine new galleries.”
The Center for Shaker Studies is made possible through major grants from the Kresge Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Florence Gould Foundation, the Fitzpatrick family, and other generous donors. The center is the culmination of Hancock Shaker Village’s $4.5 million Simple Gifts campaign. “” is funded in part by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.
As the gift drawings in the Hancock collection were created by women, “” aims to shed new light on the lives of the seven “instruments” represented. While members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (as the Shakers called themselves) strove for equality between the sexes, they followed traditional and separate roles. The fruits of women’s labor – in the kitchen, laundry, and sewing room – did not have the same longevity as did the furniture, woodenware, and architecture produced by Shaker men.
Drawings were not part of daily life or the products of men’s work and most were kept privately by the Ministry. These drawings were taken out of storage for special occasions and interpreted as religious works. Shakers themselves destroyed many in the later decades of the Nineteenth Century. For these and other reasons, most major exhibitions of Shakers artifacts have tended to focus on the products of men’s work.
“Although gift drawings may look simple to the contemporary eye, they emerged from complicated circumstances, and bore complex meanings for the Shakers,” says Sharon Duane Koomler, curator of the collection. “Ironically, these are works that do not conform to what we today may think Shaker ‘should look like.'” She continues, “The word Shaker has come to summon up the adjectives ‘plain’ and ‘simple.’ Yet gift drawings are colorful, bold, and painstakingly ornamented, and reveal a variety of worldly influences. One of our goals in this exhibition is to dispel the notion that Shakers were untouched by outside American life.”
Koomler points to fraktur, Masonic art, patterned textiles, fancy embroidery, and even graveyard stone carvings as influences on Shaker gift drawings. The pen-and-ink “spirit writings,” “heart blessings,” and ink-and-watercolor drawings on view in the exhibition show a dizzying array of symbols and motifs, from trees, flowers, fruit, birds, hearts, and wreaths to angels, crowns, palaces, trumpets, and lyres.
A highlight of the exhibition will be the most famous of all gift drawings, Hannah Cohoon’s boldly colored red and green fruit tree entitled “Tree of Life” (1854). Reflective of the less familiar works on view are two sacred sheets created by Semantha Fairbanks in 1843. Fairbanks recorded the messages she received in “spirit writing,” setting them down in all directions on the page in ornamental, even obsessive, flourishes of a flowing black and blue monochrome script.
Exhibited for the first time in “” is a small blue pen-and-ink drawing called “Dove with Rings” (no date) by an unidentified instrument. The work was found tucked inside a Shaker song manuscript donated to Hancock Shaker Village in 1978. As testimony to a remarkable outpouring of the spirit, seven heart-shaped, pen-and-ink paper cutouts by Polly Jane Reed will be displayed. Reed received loving messages for many of her brethren and sisters from Shakers who had gone on before, and transcribed these blessings onto hearts for as many as 148 Shakers in 1844.
Providing a broader context for the gift drawings is a selection of artifacts from Hancock’s permanent collection of nearly 20,000 objects. These include hand drawn maps, landscape paintings, and color drawings of village views – including a map of the Church family’s buildings and grounds at Hancock from 1820; a fine 12-foot trestle table made of cherry; and fancy embroidery, music manuscripts, and examples of the special blue and white apparel worn to worship meetings in the Nineteenth Century.
“The legacy of gift drawings emerged, flourished, and largely disappeared in 25 years, the historical equivalent of a blink of the eye. But it was no accident, for this period, from 1837 to 1860, was unique to Shaker history as a time of unparalleled internal revival. Shakers themselves called these decades the ‘period of Mother Ann’s Work’ or the ‘New Era,'” explains Yerdon.
Marked by whirling trances, visions, and spirit possessions, this period of spiritual awakening waxed a generation after the last of the founding Shakers died. Succeeding generations, who had never known the Shaker founder and visionary Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) welcomed this connection to their spiritual source.
The Shakers’ New Era bequeathed another great cultural legacy aside from gift drawings – that of Shaker gift songs, which number in the tens of thousands.
“: The Shakers’ Private Art” is the inaugural exhibition in Hancock Shaker Village’s new $2.5 million facility, the Center for Shaker Studies. The exhibition will be mounted in the permanent gallery for gift drawings and the adjacent Beatrice O. Chace Gallery for changing exhibitions.
Besides providing much needed exhibition space, the Center for Shaker Studies also provides collections management space and the Lawrence K. and Amy Bess Miller Library, a research library and reading room housing some 10,000 primary and secondary materials including original Shaker manuscripts, ephemera, photographs, graphics, and maps. The new center will offer greatly expanded amenities to the public, including an orientation theater (showing videos closed captioned in English, French, Spanish, Japanese, and German); an enlarged museum shop and restaurant; and a group tour orientation area. Designed by Orcutt Association of Yarmouth, Maine, the center expands the village’s facilities by nearly 20,000 square feet.
Hancock Shaker Village is a living history museum set in 1,200 acres of scenic woodland, fields, and meadow in the Berkshire Hills. Comprising 20 Shaker buildings utilized by the Church Family of the Hancock community from 1783 to 1960, the village houses the largest collection of Shaker artifacts available to the public at an original Shaker site. Some 20,000 objects, of which half are displayed in the village’s historic buildings, include examples of furniture, personal rdf_Descriptions, textiles, woodenware, baskets, and tools representative of every aspect of Shaker life.
Through October 22, Hancock Shaker Village is open 9:30 am to 5 pm daily on a self-guided basis. From October 23 through late May 2001, the village is open from 10 am to 3 pm daily for hourly guided tours. For information, 800/817-1137.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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