Shaker Art

We have learnt a little about the elegance of Shaker furniture and appreciated the influence its simple, elegant lines has had on furniture design. Today I will show you some of the other art works created by members of the Shaker community. The Shaker furniture designers and makers were reacting to their contemporaneous situation, the functional needs of their time. Other Shaker artists who produced gift drawings were reacting to the spiritual revelations that they believed were coming from their leader Mother Ann Lee who died in 1784. Much of this art work came out of the period of Mother’s work or the Era of Manifestations in the late 1830s.

As chance would have it, an exhibition of Shaker Art as reported in The Berkshire Eagle* (Pitsfield, Massachusetts) commenced this week at the Hancock Shaker Village. The exhibition Anything But Simple: Shaker Gift Drawings and the Women Who Made Them* features art pieces inspired by spiritual messages received from Shaker elders. Most of the work was produced between 1843 and 1857. One of the main Shaker artists was Hancock based Hannah Cohoon (1788–1864) who was born in Williamstown, Massachusetts but didn’t arrive in Hancock until 1817, signing the covenant in 1823. The earliest work I could find by Hannah is another Tree of Life or Blazing Tree produced in 1845.
Her most famous work is Tree of Life created in ink and watercolour in 1854.
It depicts a tree with thin, sinuous branches; gridded green leaves; and dotted red-and-orange and green-and-black circles which are most probably fruit. Underneath the painting is written a message about how Hannah received this vision: This tree grows in the spirit land. Mother Ann told me the name of this tree (Ref:Hancock Shaker Village Curator Lesley Herzberg). This is Hannah Cohoon's A Bower of Mulberry Trees produced in 1854. This one is titled A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples
Lesley Herzberg has pointed out that Hannah's painting style was different to other Shaker artists in that her technique was heavier, more opaque... (and) It's also thought that she [added] varnish; there's something that makes her leaves slightly shine. Hannah was also different in that she signed her work which wasn't encouraged within the Shaker society as the work was to be valued as a community piece and having individual pride would be going against Shaker regulations.

Here are some of the other Shaker artists I have discovered who must have also signed their names. This is a present from Mother Lucy to Eliza Ann Taylor, made in 1851 by Polly Ann (Jane) Reed (1818-1881) illustrating the connection between the artist and the spiritual revelations which inspired their works.
Here is another Gift Drawing by Polly Ann (Jane) Reed. Most of the pieces have words representing inspired writings (including songs) inscribed with the drawings. I have featured this piece in the Hero Image.

This gift drawing is by Polly Collins (1808-1884).
Polly Collins also produced this Tree of Comfort which was a gift from Mother Ann to Eldress Eunice in 1859. (Ref: Collection of the Shaker Library, United Society of Shakers.)

Jacob Skeen was one of only two known Shaker men to produce any art works. This piece, produced by Jacob in 1887, is a two sheet religious chart aimed at furthering Shaker education. This is a pocket handkerchief illustrating the intricate detail the Shakers were capable of producing with their needlework. (Ref: The Berkshire Eagle)

This is another Shaker Gift Drawing but sadly I don't know the name of the artist.

It is natural to segue to American Folk Art or Naive Art from here: a style of art I have had a great interest in over the years so let's see what I can produce for you. Please send in any ideas about art topics you would like me to cover.

Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on anewman@netspace.net.au or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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