2016-06-30
If Americans know anything about the Shakers, they tend to think of the furniture so highly valued by serious collectors, or else they know the tune to "The Gift to Be Simple," immortalized by Aaron Copeland and recently used to sell Oldsmobiles on television. Perhaps a few know the red and green fruit-bearing tree drawn by Hannah Cohoon. The furniture and the music have slipped into popular culture in interestingly perverse ways: They represent a dream of simplicity and innocence--albeit one that relies on market prices for antiques and, in the Olds ads, on the commercialization of nostalgia.

Shaker "gift drawings"--as the inspired drawings are known--haven't escaped commercialization completely. Cohoon's drawing of the Shaker tree of life itself occasionally appears on notepads and aprons and the like. But the tree of life, like many gift drawings, has the power to correct the simplistic appropriation of Shaker objects if only we look closely. It offers a more satisfying encounter with the Shakers' distinctive American venture in religious life.

Last June, Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts opened a new visitor's center, gallery, and study center, which, for the first time, can display the museum's major collection of gift drawings. To see the drawings in person is, even for those who know them well through books, magazines, and other reproductions, to see just how carefully, deftly, and precisely the Shaker women thought about their celibate, communal, visionary lives.

Most of the known artists were, in fact, women, and most came from the hands of five or six women who lived at Hancock or at the nearby Mount Lebanon community in New York. To be a Shaker required a deliberately chosen life. One did not "naturally" or accidentally choose celibacy--or, for that matter, the Shakers' communal style of living or their withdrawal from the world. The women were mature members of the community, and two of them were to serve in the Lead Ministry, while others were prominent as teachers or deaconesses. Shaker artists, like all Shaker believers, were conscious of their religious choices, whether or not they were theologians. Their work, though varied in style or substance, reflects a well-thought-out commitment to Shaker principles.

As a general rule, Shakers were sternly Protestant in their rejection of ornamentation in their dwellings and their meetinghouses (a rejection that, as noted, resulted in highly desirable peg boards, chairs, and chests). During an extended period in the middle of the 19th century, however, members of the society engaged in religious practices marked by trances, the reception of inspired songs, dances, and highly prophetic messages. A rather small number of Shaker sisters discovered that they were called to produce drawings, most of which were deemed to be sent from heavenly figures to members of the community--gift drawings.

Sister Polly Collins, who lived at Hancock, used ink and watercolor to create the drawing she identified in the following way: "This wreath was brought by Mother's Little Dove for the Ministry at the City of Peace." The colorful, carefully balanced circle was not "just a pretty picture," however, because it contained a message of five verses encouraging the ministry to persevere when they faced difficulties similar to the persecution that their founder, Mother Ann Lee, had withstood near the end of the 18th century.

The Hancock collection contains several additional pieces drawn by Sister Polly. She seems to have been fond of the tree image because she drew a number of fruit-bearing trees as gifts for individual members. In a more complex drawing, "An Emblem of the Heavenly Sphere," she identified notable biblical figures, including Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary, the prophets, and the apostles, all dressed in Shaker garb in heaven--and she surrounded them with the many life-giving trees promised to believers in the book of Revelation.

Other drawings take different forms, such as the large collection of small hearts drawn by Sister Polly Reed and probably designed for each member of her Mount Lebanon family in April of 1844. There are also drawings intended to offer comfort to elder members, perhaps nearing death, and to young members, exhorting them to remain steadfast in the Shaker path. Because artists were seen as--and understood themselves to be--instruments through which these messages were transmitted, they were able to function as comforters, as visionaries, and as ritual agents who could unite long-dead Shaker personages with young and old believers who might benefit from heavenly attention. The apparently simple drawings, thus, were also laden with personal, communal and religious importance.

Sister Hannah Cohoon's "Tree of Life," drawn in 1854, was not designed as a gift for another person, so far as we know. "I received a draft of a beautiful Tree pencil'd on a sheet of white paper bearing ripe fruit," she wrote in explaining the vision that spurred her to draw.

Rewarding even to the casual glance, "Tree of Life" reveals surprisingly complex vistas that grow richer the closer one is allowed to examine it. On first approach, it is a warm, abundant, balanced view of life. Look again, and it displays intricate little details, like the heavily overpainted and scratched trunk and the carefully measured cross-hatching on the leaves. The attention to detail, the artist's earnestness, and her almost buoyant sense of proportion give us a better idea that her purpose was not to decorate her room with a bright picture, or even to render something from her mind's eye. She was trying to capture an image she had seen and struggled with over several visionary experiences.

Her text, which is commonly lost in reproductions, was as important to her vision--and likely to her--as the tree itself. Under the tree is a rather long description of the drawing as it first appeared to Sister Hannah. She writes that she found it "singular and curious" herself, and that, as she eventually discovered through the "hand of a medium," "Your Tree Is the Tree of Life." Thus the tree of knowledge from which Eve ate the apple is turned back into eternal life and promise. Cohoon's vision also confirmed the Shaker tradition that God would plant a tree in America that would bear abundant fruit.

Such a precise and personal message embedded in such an apparently simple drawing is the reason the Shaker vision resists nostalgia, romanticism, or simplistic appropriation. The gift drawings--like the theology and the community and the individual believers themselves--carry uncomfortable and challenging messages to the world, even as they invite us to a much more cautious and steady attention to the revolutionary vision of the Shakers.



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