From Shaker Art to 'Wicked Pleasures'

By Lamb, Gregory M. | The Christian Science Monitor, July 14, 2000 | Go to article overview
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From Shaker Art to 'Wicked Pleasures'


Lamb, Gregory M., The Christian Science Monitor


Summer in the Berkshires - which bills itself as "America's Premier Cultural Resort" - is known for music, principally as host to the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood.

Theater beckons, too, in the form of the Williamstown Theater Festival (see our story, page 17), the innovative Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, and others. And the stages of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket display the best of the world's dance (see page 19).

But I recently passed up those temptations to travel to western Massachusetts for a long weekend to view the region's art exhibitions, and to find out more about Shaker art, America's fascination with "the Orient," and the adventurer-artist who illustrated "Moby Dick." It was a rewarding trip.

Seen and Received: The Shakers' Private Art, which opened last month in conjunction with a new $2.5 million visitors center at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, reveals two less-talked-about aspects of that communal religious movement: the colorful nature of its artwork and the centrality of its deeply-held religious beliefs.

The exhibition's 25 Shaker drawings were the work of women at Hancock and the nearby Shaker community at Mt. Lebanon, N.Y. They had prayed for enlightenment and were given "spiritual visions," which they painted on paper. It's "a very powerful thing to exhibit all of them at once," Sharon Koomler, the curator of the Hancock Village collection, told me. They're "a facet of women's work [in the Shaker community] that has not been looked at in a meaningful way."

Ms. Koomler also pulled in three-dimensional objects from the museum's collection (like a 12-foot trestle table) for context.

On the front of Hannah Cohoon's stunning "Tree of Life" (1854), she wrote: "I saw [the Tree of Life] plainly, it looked very singular and curious to me. I have since learned that this tree grows in the Spir[i]t Land."

"Seen and Received" will stay on display through April 2, 2001.

Distant Shores: The Odyssey of Rockwell Kent follows the remarkable painter who spent his life in harsh, remote locales.

Kent (1882-1971) was a "genius" who put a "soul-surge into every one of his brushstrokes," said Thomas Hoving, director emeritus of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art at the opening ceremony I attended. First on Monhegan Island in Maine; and later in Newfoundland, Alaska, Tierra del Fuego; and finally in his beloved Greenland, Kent sought "the spirit-stirring glamour of the terrible," Mr. Hoving said.

His luminescent scenes, filled with color and light, seem to pop off the canvas. The exhibition, which draws from 32 collections, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, continues at The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

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