Shaker Spirit Drawings

Shaker Spirit Drawings from Hancock Shaker Village.
Organized by Sue Reed and June Sprigg. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(originally published in The Boston Phoenix, May 1990)

In the nineteenth century, women in Shaker communities recorded their visions of heavenly gardens in “spirit” or “gift” drawings.  24 of these rare and lovely drawings are displayed here, together with a few pieces of spare, elegant Shaker polished wood furniture and workboxes.

Hannah Harrison Cohoon‘s 1854 watercolor “The Tree of Life” shows a large tree festooned with round red apples, and criss-crossed oval leaves.  Polly Jane Reed‘s 1844 “Seven Heart-shaped Gifts” are gentle, heart-shaped messages decorated with tiny drawings of doves and flowers in pale blue ink.  As I walked through the show, looking at drawings with names like “A Bower of Mulberry Trees” and “A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples“,  I found myself humming the old Shaker song, Simple Gifts:

“‘Tis a gift to be simple.
‘Tis a gift to be free.
‘Tis a gift to stand right where you ought to be.”

The style of these “spirit” drawings echoes various sewing techniques – quilting, embroidery, samplers.  The words, written in tiny, spidery handwriting, are faded and almost illegible, but the little birds and hearts and flowers make the feelings clear.    These drawings are simple gifts that speak to the heart.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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