'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
(Elder Joseph Brackett, Alfred, Maine)
In a religious and utopian movement which has endured for 240 years, there remain three living Shakers who make their home at Sabbathday Lake in Maine in the last of the surviving communities founded by the brotherhood in America. Within three years of Mother Ann Lee's arrival in the colonies in 1774, the Shakers had established themselves in their first communal settlement at Mount Lebanon, NY. In the course of the next century, they built nineteen other communities, four of which were in Maine, from New England to Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky where they worked quietly and diligently to embody their founder's motto, "hands to work and heart to God." The result of their labors was not only the living witness they paid to their religious beliefs, but a treasure trove of art and artifacts which they created to support their simple life style and gain revenue for their community. It is a mesmerizing cross-section of these works that constitute the breathtaking new exhibit at Rockland, Maine's Farnsworth Museum, curated by Michael K. Komanecky, that runs until January 4, 2015.
That Maine was home to four Shaker communities which flourished through the 19th and early 20 centuries – and that the remaining members of the society still live and work at Sabbathday Lake, makes the Farnsworth an ideal choice for the exhibit, which draws its artifacts predominantly from Mt. Lebanon and the Maine communities, dedicating an entire gallery to Sabbathday Lake.
The religious credo which led Mother Ann Lee to leave England for the New World was one based on Christian principles that held that God was a pure spirit of masculine and feminine essence; that Jesus became the chosen Christ when he was baptized by John; and that Love was the cornerstone of the faith. This love they defined as the giving of the self freely without expecting anything in return. They espoused celibacy, pacifism, a kind of "communal capitalism," equality of the sexes, and a firm belief in the intrinsic value of manual labor – each to his abilities - for the good of the community and for the fulfillment of the self. Mother Ann Lee and her successors led the believers of her United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming in an ecstatic kind of worship that included movement and song and so bestowed on the group its name, the "Shakers."
Mother Ann Lee's first years in America were spent in traveling missionary work, but after her death in 1784, the faithful decided to gather together in communal groups, which radiated from their spiritual center at Mt. Lebanon. In the forty years which followed under the leadership of James Whittaker, then Brother Joseph Meacham and Sister Lucy Wright, "they codified their religious beliefs, built impressive communities from scratch, and quickly spread their Society across the frontiers of European settlement in America." says curator Komanecky. " Within a few decades they had become exemplary to the World for their prosperous, healthy, and orderly villages, and for the quality of their goods. As more time passed, their beliefs and practices had a broad influence on the history of social reform, religion, design, and innovation."
By the 1930s, however, as membership declined, Shakers began selling their property and consolidating their communities. It was at this point that John S. Williams, Sr., who lived near Mt. Lebanon, began to see the merit in collecting Shaker objects. In 1950 he hired an Egyptologist to catalogue his collection, and upon his death in 1982, he bequeathed his collection and part of his farm to the Shaker Museum Foundation, which has painstaking restored buildings and gathered a valuable collection at Mt. Lebanon. This impetus led to other preservation efforts, many spearheaded by Shaker Sisters and Brothers themselves. The sole surviving active community at Sabbathday Lake in Maine is supported by a not-for-profit foundation and continues to work to preserve the Shaker legacy.
The current exhibition at the Farnsworth is subtitled From Mount Lebanon to the World and is arranged to document the changing style of Shaker art. As one passes through the four galleries, whose walls are painted in soothing shades of slate blue, gray, sage green, and earthy rust, one is struck not only by the bold simplicity of the objects, but also by their amazingly modern feel. The groupings of tools, furniture, household implements, baskets, clothing, and works on paper are beautifully arranged almost as sculpture so that the pieces make a statement as a whole as well as individual artifacts – an impression which reinforces the quiet communality of the Shaker life. The union of form and function is ever present; here the art speaks to a harmonious and integrated existence.
The first gallery is dedicated to objects from the Mt. Lebanon museum and is dominated by a bold, staircase rising from the center of the room. The stairway made of birch, cherry, and pine taken from the North Family Dwelling when it was dismantled in 1973, boasts gracefully turned balustrades that taper upward to join an equally simple hand railing. The piece, displayed as it is, combines an airiness and sturdiness.
Another eye-catching piece of furniture is the blue and orange painted wooden tailoring cupboard, crafted in 1815 for the sisters of the Canterbury, NH. Striking in the asymmetry of the drawers, the use of single knob pulls, and the unusually height of the work surface, this cabinet fills its space with a quiet, unconventional elegance.
Then there is the cluster of framed illuminations, private expressions sometimes decorative, often confessional, celebratory, or ecstatically revelatory. One of the most striking is the ink and watercolor primitively styled drawing by Sister Sarah Bates (1792-1881), painted on New Year's Day, 1848. The drawing and text recount the message Mother Ann Lee's spirit gave to Sister Amy Reed. Much like William Blake's fanciful visions, Bates' drawing is adorned with symbolic trees, birds, and flowers, some mentioned in the text and some purely fanciful.
The exhibit segues to galleries devoted to Shaker community life, and it is here that one gets to appreciate the beauty of craftsmanship they applied to every aspect of daily living. There is an array of farm and work implements, arranged so artfully that they have the effect of installations; there are groupings of chairs, brooms, shovels, wooden bowls, and baskets of all shapes and sizes.
The arrangement of six rocking chairs in order of size evokes both the age diversity of the community- (though celibate they took in orphan and other needy children) - and the remarkable shared aesthetic. Several are caned on both seat and back, while others display the familiar ladder back with varying number of rungs. So, too, does a cluster of four shovels make a dramatic accent on the pale walls. Both the handles and the digging portions vary in style. Most attractive is the large rake whose geometry calls to mind a Mondrian painting.
The turned wooden bowls are exquisite in their subtle finishes. Particularly lovely is the large dough bowl from Watervliet, NY, with its blue painted exterior and softly finished interior which allows for the wood's own grain to create the design. Then there are the tightly woven baskets in every imaginable shape and size. One attractive example from the 20th century by Sister Emma Jane Neale (1847-1943) sports a curved flat handle and long rectangular shape. The very variety of shapes evidences the Shakers'' inventiveness but also their economical sense of practicality.
Once again the furniture in these galleries makes the dominant impression. Two stunning chests of drawers from 1830-40 Mt. Lebanon become the focal point, one in a dark creamy finish, the other a rich buttery yellow. That these objects, made with such loving hands, served quotidian functions only enhances their mystique.
But as much as the Shakers gathered in their own communities, they were not a sect who isolated themselves from the world. As the exhibit notes so aptly explain, they were a prime example of "capitalist communism." They banded together to safeguard their beliefs and their way of life, but they interacted with the greater world, primarily through their business ventures. Beginning in the 19th century they realized the market for their goods from furniture to tools, crafts, clothing, and even decorative objects. The next galleries display these beautiful wares made for sale as well as personal use. There are several stunning high chairs from 1890 Mt. Lebanon with checkerboard cane seats and contrasting wood colors, a collection of oval boxes in familiar shades of yellow, blue, green, made both for home use and for sale. Even the colorful seed boxes, artfully arranged, demonstrate the Shaker flair for simple yet striking statement.
The last section of the exhibition is devoted to the four Maine Shaker communites (Alfred, Gorham, Poland, and Sabbathday Lake) and contains furniture, artifacts, decorative objects and photographs which span the period from the late 19th century to present day at Sabbathday Lake. One immediately notices that the spare simplicity of earlier furniture has modulated into the Shaker "take" on Victorian style. Scrollwork, inlaid wood patterns, and other small ornaments are seen in the exquisitely crafted furniture. Many examples of Brother Delmer C. Wilson (1873-1961) artistry light up the gallery, among them a writing desk he fashioned for his own bedroom in 1905. The sycamore desk, which features curved brass pulls on inlaid oval panels, a top hutch with cubbyholes garnished with a carved vine like scroll is typical of the period.
There is also his round end table with pie-shaped wedges of contrasting wood, as well as his postcard rack, the latter an object that would likely have appealed to the busy Maine summer tourist trade, especially at nearby Poland Springs. Wilson was an avid early photographer himself, and some of his prints here displayed give a fascinating glimpse back in time. Other purely decorative objects, such as the mirror with its lovely painted floral frame and the elaborate framed needlework picture of peacocks, in which the silk thread is intersewn with actual peacock feathers – both by Sister Ada S. Cummings from 1920 give a good idea of the kinds of crafts the Shakers made and sold as part of their "fancy work business."
But despite the fact that some of these objects were made for commercial purposes, they, nevertheless, retain the same air of purity and simplicity that characterizes all of Shaker art through the more than two decades of the society's history. The Farnsworth exhibit Is a major mainstream accomplishment in preserving this tradition, not only because it provides a comprehensive overview of the Shaker contribution to American art, but because it showcases these artifacts so inspiringly. Standing in these galleries on a quiet Sunday morning, the inimitable Maine seaside light pouring through the rotunda, one feels the spirituality of the artists who fashioned these works.
Moreover, one feels the sanctity of the work itself. The combination of form and function which is at once both primitive and modern radiates a quiet, unshakeable faith, something which, as curator Komanecky points out, motivated many monastic traditions throughout the history of art, but which somehow here seems extraordinarily powerful. For a community for whom their faith in God was to be found in nature and in man, then surely God - he/she (as the Shakers would correctly remind us) – is present in art, as well, and no where more simply and with greater purity than in these beautiful creations made by hands lifted in worshipful work and spirits who understood what it was "to come down where they ought to be."
As this exhibit so eloquently bears witness, the Shakers, in the organic essence of their existence, understood how to create their own "valley of love and delight."