DPCD on the divine inspiration of Shaker art
The first time I saw Hannah Cohoon Tree of life, a spirit hand reached out and grabbed my arm. I had been browsing through an American folk art book when I saw it in the Shaker section. My eyes scanned the illustration: the tree, its case of thorny leaves, its orb-shaped fruit, and the scribble of illegible text below. I counted the fruits: 14 in total, seven oranges, seven greens. I noticed groups of leaves by four. The tree was balanced but asymmetrical, orderly but wild, and conveyed a strange feeling of another world. The hand of the spirit asked me to turn the page.
Hannah Cohoon was a member of Hancock Shaker Village in western Massachusetts. Called the “United Society of Believers in the Second Coming of Christ” by its members, the religious movement is also known for its art, radical community organization and its demand for celibacy. Cohoon’s work emerges from a period of Shaker art called the Age of Manifestations, a spiritual revival in the mid-1800s that produced songs, dances, and intricate works of art they called Gift Drawings. .
At the time, I was trying to write music that would have an effect on the listener like Tree of life had on me. I wanted to write songs that were windows to another world, containing mundane images and domestic details, opening doors to mysterious rooms. I tried weaving acoustic guitar textures to get lost and write words that illuminated the texture but stayed behind it. Music that hypnotizes more than it explains.
The Shakers were founded and led by Mother Ann Lee, who created doctrine from Quaker traditions mixed with new divine inspiration. Lee claimed that marriage was an earthly arrangement and that the Shakers were to live by the rules of the Kingdom of God. The Shakers banned marriage and demanded celibacy for all members of the community, separating work and sleep according to gender. The community only grew through membership of converts, which happened frequently due to the economic stability of life in Shaker villages. They looked after the poor who needed food and shelter, cultivated the land for food, and made products to sell to the outside world.
I started to study more Gift Drawings, discovering artists like Polly Collins, who drew circles of buildings and brightly colored flowers, and Polly Anne Reed, who drew a detailed map of what she has. said to be a city of spirits. I was obsessed, I searched the art section of every bookstore I came across in hopes of finding more Shaker art and discovering new artists. I felt like everything I could imagine was contained in these drawings, and I wanted more.
Why was I so interested in the Shakers? On the one hand, I loved art that engaged in the connection between the material and the spiritual. Also, as someone interested in alternatives to capitalism, I was constrained by the economic organization of Shaker life. But I felt that there was something deeper in my connection with the Shakers, something that I was afraid to watch.
Most Shaker artwork outside of gift designs is stark and minimal. In Shaker architecture, ornamentation is prohibited. Their furniture design elevates function above all else. Decoration and visual arts were prohibited. As I studied these things, I noticed the emergence of a theme of repression: sexual repression, tightly controlled aesthetic expression, rigorous work schedules, and relationship and gender rules. The shakers were islanders. They believed they held a truth that made them closer to God, closer than those in the outside world.
There were clear parallels between the Shakers and the evangelical Christian world I grew up in, a world I was beginning to assimilate. Both communities had a fear of the secular world, a fear of sex, and a spiritually regulated morality. Like the Shakers, I had inherited a conception of God with limits and rules. Breaking these rules risked community disapproval at best and eternal separation at worst.
I now saw the Gift Drawings in a new light. They were acts of freedom; forbidden visual expression springing from a repressive environment of gender rules, control and expectations. I came across some wilder, more symbolic and less logical Gift Drawings. These designs seemed to deliberately avoid being interpreted – they were made up of freely placed letters, shapes and symbols. I started to write music who pushed to the limits of my belief system, my limits, my conception of God and my conception of the world. The way these songs came out was neither consistent nor explanatory. They were like ecstatic drawings, symbolic, vague, resistant to interpretation. I knew I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t put it into words. Did the Shakers who made these ecstatic drawings feel that way? Have they ever doubted the goodness of their community? What were they trying to communicate?
My experience of personal spirituality began to intensify. There is an element in evangelical spirituality where God is like Santa Claus – “He sees you when you sleep, He knows when you are awake.” This vigilance is explained as benevolent. God cares about you, watches over you, protects you. As I grew up, I took comfort in the idea of an omniscient and omniscient presence. But that feeling of being constantly watched and measured started to turn into paranoia in me. “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for god’s sake!” This spiritual gaze has become accusing, even horrifying. What if I wanted to escape the gaze? What if I wanted to be alone? “Eyes,” reads a small readable text in one of the ecstatic gift designs. I pictured God as an eye above a giant chessboard, watching all the pieces move, wanting the ones he wanted, ignoring the rest. I felt the eye against my neck.
There are many reasons why we come into conflict with their faith. For me, it was about seeing how the Gospel belief system had harmed me, harmed my Queer friends and family, and mingled with the evil forces of the empire and of capital. I created distance where distance was needed, and with that, the feeling of being watched faded. I thought about these different images: the Eye, the chessboard, the tree, and how I had seen God in each of them. I was glad to be far from the Eyeil, but I missed the Tree. I felt a loss. I wrote music about Hannah Cohoon speaking to me in a dream, imagining her comforting me in my sadness and saying, “Yes, I felt that too.”
I wonder if Hannah Cohoon has ever considered leaving her community. Has she ever found the environment, for all its promises of unity, purity, ecstasy and spiritual union, too painful to inhabit?
The songs I’m writing now don’t answer any of these questions, they just spell them out more directly. The new album I’m releasing is called It is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It’s music about the process of accepting my religious education and moving forward. The inspiration for the anti-capitalist nature of the Shakers is there, and the images of the Gift Drawings stay with me. But these new songs are not windows to another world. These are illuminations of this world, the one I live in and love. They are an attempt to heal myself and others, and to seek a sense of wonder.
I once asked a friend what it meant that I couldn’t synthesize my past beliefs with my current beliefs. I shared with him how the images, stories, and songs from my past faith continued to linger with me. I asked him what to do with it. “You have nothing to do with them,” was his response. “You just take them with you. ”
(Photo credit: left, Rachel Winslow)