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Gathering Up the Fragments of Shaker Life

Gathering Up the Fragments of Shaker Life
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   If you live within a two hour drive of Portland Museum of Art and have not yet seen Gather Up the Fragments: The Andrews Shaker Collection (through February 5, 2012), I strongly urge you to do so. But before you do, it might help to get in the proper frame of mind. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths, empty your head of the clutter and head of daily life, and then enter into the spirit of exhibition.

   I suggest this because of the jarring dichotomy between the lively public art scene the evening I saw the Shaker show and the selfless quietism embodied in the 200 artifacts of Shaker material culture on display.

Oval Boxes c.1840

Portland’s First Friday Art Walks are not to be missed. There are thousands of people in the streets, hundreds wandering the galleries of the Portland Museum of Art (which is free on Friday evenings from 5 to 9), and block party atmosphere with street vendors and buskers prevails from Longfellow Square to the Old Port. But there’s something discordant about going gallery hopping then out for a meal and drink when the main event is an exhibition of objects made by people who withdrew from the world, sought to extinguish self and to glorify God.

   The fact that Shakers insisted on celibacy pretty much guaranteed their extinction. Where there were once 5,000 Shakers in the 19th century, there are four or five today, the tiny community at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine. Indeed, Shakers themselves are museum pieces themselves in the 21st century.

Shaker Basket

Edwin Deming Andrews (1894-1964) and his wife Faith Young Andrews (1896-1990) were pioneering Shaker scholars and collectors, acquiring their collection of Shaker furniture, tool, clothing, and art between the 1920s and the 1960s. Gather Up the Fragments, which is now touring, was first exhibited at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 2008 and 2009. The Andrews Collection came to Portland following stops earlier this year at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center in Stamford, CT, and the First Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN. When it leaves Portland, it will travel to the Mitchell Gallery, St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, and the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI.

Mitten and Stocking Forms

The objects on exhibit all manifest the Shaker aesthetic (or is it an ethic?) of plain, unadorned, functional simplicity. They are one-of-a-kind handmade objects that long-dead Shakers have taken great care to make for a world they rejected. There are excellent examples, of course, of the boxes, baskets and chairs we all associate with Shaker style, but I found myself spending the most time examining more unusual creations.

   There is, for example, a pine and butternut cobbler’s bench from the Mount Lebanon, NY, community that just begged to be sat upon, the seat and work surface upholstered in leather. And there are wooden hat forms and hat shapers used to make the flat-brimmed hats that Shaker men wore. Simple and functional and very agrarian, but it did occur to me that fieldworkers in other parts of the world fashion far simpler hats.

Herbal Preparation Labels, 1840-1860

The object I found the most captivating however, even a bit haunting, is an adult cradle of pine and red wash. Shakers used the adult cradles in their infirmaries to rock the elderly and infirm. The idea that some dear soul about to meet his or her maker was gently rocked in this contraption, essentially a narrow coffin on rockers, struck me as a testament to compassionate design.


[Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland ME. 207-775-6148.]

Edgar Allen Beem


Edgar Allen Beem


Take a look at art in New England with Edgar Allen Beem. He’s been art critic for the Portland Independent, art critic and feature writer for Maine Times, and now is a freelance writer for Yankee, Down East, Boston Globe Magazine, The Forecaster, and Photo District News. He’s the author of Maine Art Now (1990) and Maine: The Spirit of America (2000). In 1988, he won the Manufacturers Hanover Art/World Award for Distinguished Newspaper Art Criticism for his coverage of the 1987 auction sale of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises. Ed says, “My credo as an arts writer has long been: ‘The work of art is the search for meaning.’ I believe art is not only a form of personal expression but also a form of inquiry, every bit as much a quest for truth as scientific research.” Ed Beem’s newest book, Backyard Maine: Local Essays, has just been published by Tilbury House, Publishers, of Gardiner, Maine. It’s not about the meaning of art; it’s about the meaning of family, community, and life in general. Edgar Beem is currently at work on a new book about contemporary art in Maine to be published in the fall of 2012.
Updated Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

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