Shaker Gift Drawings and the Women Who Made Them

May 12 – September 3, 2018

Opening in May 2018, Hancock Shaker Village will exhibit its rare Shaker “gift” or “spirit” drawings for the first time in decades.  Mysterious, decorative, and ornate (the opposite of what we think of as Shaker design, which is experiencing strong interest currently), the drawings were not shared outside the Shaker community. The Shakers’ ban on ornamentation exempted the drawings, because they were never meant to be displayed.  The work is startling and complicated, unique to the Shakers and to American religious culture as a whole. The gift drawing collection (1843-1857) at Hancock is widely considered one of the finest, containing 25 of the 200 gift drawings extant in public and private collections today. It is thought that hundreds more drawings once existed, but were destroyed by the Shakers when their creators died.  Anything but Simple includes the most famous gift drawing – Hannah Cohoon’s 1854 Tree of Life  — and examines the drawings as they relate to women and their role as spiritual “instruments” in Shaker communities in the mid-19th century.

Dense with detail, colorful, and ornamental, these drawings are not what we have come to expect of Shaker visual culture.  But then again, the Shakers were radical, with an optimistic faith in human betterment and the possibility to obtain utopia on earth through hard work, utility, integrity, and dedication.  At their peak in the early 19th century, there were perhaps 6,000 members scattered in some 20 villages from Maine to Kentucky.  It’s remarkable to think that such a small sect left such a legacy of design and moral clarity.

Curator talk 3pm and opening reception at 4-5:30pm Saturday, May 12; FREE TO MEMBERS/$10 NOT-YET MEMBERS

Generously supported by Balance Rock Investment Group and The Dobbins Foundation.