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Hancock Shaker Village: The Shaker's Private Art

East View of the Brick HouseFrom June 24, 2000 to April 2, 2001, Hancock Shaker Village presents the first major museum 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 19th century which captured on paper a fervent outpouring of Shaker religious belief.

Seen and Received 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 twenty-five drawings of exceptional quality, range and scale. These works on paper will be exhibited only on a rotating basis, following the showing of Seen and Received.

The gift drawings in the Hancock collection were created by women, and Seen and Received sheds new light on the lives of the seven "instruments" or artists 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 men. Drawings were not part of daily life like the products of men's work and most were kept privately by the Ministry. The drawings were taken out of storage for special occasions and interpreted as religious works and many were destroyed by the Shakers themselves in the later decades of the 19th century. For these and other reasons, most major exhibitions of Shaker artifacts have tended to focus on the products of men's work.

Tree of LifeA highlight of the exhibition is the most famous of all gift drawings, Hannah Cohoon's boldly colored red and green fruit tree entitled The 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 Seen and Received is a small blue pen —and-ink drawing entitled Dove with Rings (n.d.) by an unidentified instrument. The work was found tucked inside a Shaker song manuscript donated to the Village in 1978. As a testimony to the remarkable outpouring of the spirit, seven heart-shaped, pen and ink paper cutouts by Polly Jane Reed are 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 and color drawings of the village views — including a map of the Church family's building and grounds at Hancock from 1820, a fine 12-foot trestle table made of cherry, fancy embroidery, music manuscripts, and examples of the special blue and white apparel worn to worship meetings in the 19th century.

Photos of: The Tree of Life, Hannah Cohoon, 1854.
East View of the Brick House, Church Family Hancock, Unknown, ca. 1870.