New exhibit shakes up perception of Shaker art

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PITTSFIELD — Shaker art is often tied to simplicity. But an exhibit at Hancock Shaker Village reveals that the Christian sect didn't necessarily abstain from ornate creations during the Era of Manifestations.

"Anything But Simple: Shaker Gift Drawings and the Women Who Made Them," which opens this weekend and runs through Sept. 3, showcases pieces inspired by spiritual messages received from Shaker elders. After absorbing these "gifts," visionists would reproduce them "through drawings, songs, dances, poems and just messages in general," according to Hancock Shaker Village Curator Lesley Herzberg. By featuring the drawings, the museum aims to demonstrate that Shaker art extends beyond well-crafted, unembellished furniture.

"They're really complicated images, and they kind of have to be unpacked," Herzberg said of the show's works.

The museum's collection contains 25 of the 200 gift drawings that can be found worldwide; they were finished between 1843 and 1857. One of them is "The Tree of Life" (1854) by Hannah Cohoon. The Hancock-based Shaker's ink-and-watercolor is a well-known gift drawing. It depicts a tree with thin, sinuous branches; gridded green leaves; and dotted red-and-orange and green-and-black orbs believed to be fruits.

"Most people know the image, but underneath it is written out a very specific message about how she received this vision and how it came to her. It's very plain: 'This tree grows in the spirit land. Mother Ann told me the name of this tree,'" Herzberg paraphrased.

Cohoon was born in 1788 but didn't arrive at Hancock until 1817, signing the covenant in 1823, according to Herzberg.

"She had ample experience of the outside world. She had all this knowledge of, I'm sure, more textiles and quilts and painted tinware and all of these things that she would've seen outside the community," Herzberg said.

Her painting technique was different from most Shakers'.

"It's heavier, more opaque," Herzberg said. "It's also thought that she [added] varnish; there's something that makes her leaves slightly shine."

Beyond her signature style, Cohoon provided another means of identifying her drawings: She signed them, which wasn't encouraged in Shaker society.

"You don't take pride in your work. Your work is valued as a community, and to take that individual pride would be going against Shaker precepts," Herzberg said. "But Hannah did."

The act of creating gift drawings itself barely skirted heresy.

"The Millennial Laws really don't allow any kind of artwork to be displayed — no ornamentation, nothing decorative," Herzberg said, referencing a set of Shaker principles. "And these [drawings] find their way around that directive because they are not considered art. They're literally spiritual messages, so they are accepted under that context."

Today, the drawings are considered art. This exhibit's focus on them consequently draws attention to female visionists. Herzberg said that only two male visionists are known to have made gift drawings.

"In Shaker tradition, a lot of times the men were the scribes. Women kept journals, too, but a lot of times the men were really the scribes. They're writing things down very literally," Herzberg said.

Women's gifts tended to take the form of song or drawings. Their daily work influenced them.

"A lot of these, you're going to see echoes of needlework and embroidery and quilt patterns," Herzberg said. " ... The women were working with colors every day. They were dyeing fabrics. They were dyeing wool. They were spinning and weaving, so they had a very wide color palette to work from."

Polly Collins' "An Emblem of the Heavenly Father" (1854) exemplifies this range, predominantly portraying Shaker leaders and Christian biblical figures in colorful garb. They are flanked by festive trees. The work also epitomizes gift drawings' precision.

"They're very symmetrical. They're very thought-out and planned. We know that they were using drafting tools to create them, compasses and rulers. There's underdrawing. There's outlining done. It's a very considered composition," Herzberg said.

The curator hadn't expected to discover this level of preparation when studying the pieces, which constitute this season's traditional Shaker art show at Hancock Shaker Village. (They were last exhibited as a group decades ago and will travel to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City in 2021 or 2022, according to Herzberg.)

"I was always imagining these women sitting up in the middle of the night with one candle and painting furtively," she said, "but it wasn't that way at all."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

If you go...

What: "Anything But Simple: Shaker Gift Drawings and the Women Who Made Them"

When: May 12 through Sept. 3. Daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through June 29; until 5 p.m. through Nov. 12

Where: Hancock Shaker Village, 1843 West Housatonic St., Pittsfield

Tickets: Included in admission; Free to members

Information: HancockShakerVillage.org


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