There's something fundamentally American about this very enjoyable show of Shaker work at the Portland Museum of Art. The ethos that has driven the workmanship and style is an amalgam of Yankee ingenuity alloyed with high moral purpose. Its effects have reached well into our own day as a direct result of their work, and indirectly as a harbinger of changes in the Western cultural template. Their ideals shaped their world, and helped inspire others to undertake their own projects for affecting how things are seen and understood.
>> SLIDESHOW: "Gather Up the Pieces: The Andrews Shaker Collection" <<
For those of us who grew up after World War II, Shaker style is so pervasive as to be practically invisible. There's a Shaker-style ladder-back a few feet from where I sit that is itself old enough to be thought an antique, and their coat pegs and flat brooms are everywhere. Wide appreciation of the broad reach of their influence was limited, though, until Edward Deming Andrews and his wife Faith undertook to form a large scale collection of Shaker artifacts. Their scholarship and close relations with surviving Shakers starting around 1920 brought this work to the attention of museums, historians, artists like Aaron Copland, and to Thomas Merton, who revered the Shakers and their expression of faith through craft. The current exhibition is drawn mostly from the Andrews collection.
Virtually everything in this show projects an aura of the respect the Shakers afforded to both the materials and the user, as well as their ethic of faith in simplicity. For example, the cherry settee (exhibition number 14) is a straightforward construction with a slanted slat back, two arms, and a thin mattress supported by ropes. Its grace comes from its details: the large dovetails that hold the frame together, the little ring turning and slightly curved taper of front posts of the armrests, the flaring downward curve of the armrests themselves, and the legs that are square at the top and become tapered cylinders. The aggregation of these deft little touches make this piece graceful and inviting. One immediately wants to run a hand over the arms and have a seat, but this is a museum and of course we cannot. Things meant to be used and handled must be observed at a distance, creating an uncomfortable dissonance. It is good these things are preserved, but sad they are no longer in service to the community, its members, and its purpose.
The Shakers, or, more properly, the United Society of Believers, is a separatist Christian movement that started in the 18th century in England with a small band of believers who emigrated to the United States. In the early 19th century the movement grew, with communities across New England and west into Ohio. Like monastic communities, Shakers live apart, holding all goods in common. Unlike most of them, the Shakers welcomed men, women. and children. They practice celibacy and have strict formalities of behavior, appearance and demeanor, but are not severe; they love music and dancing, and it was this last that gave them the originally derogatory nickname "Shakers." The term, like "Yankees," has lost its negative flavor over time.