Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. —John 6:12
A new exhibit, "Gather Up the Fragments: the Andrews Shaker Collection," opened at Fruitlands Museum on Saturday, Sept. 7 and will run until Dec. 1. One of the exhibit's storyboards notes that the Shakers used the Biblical quote referred to in the title as a reminder to leave nothing on their plates. Its use in the exhibit title attests to the Andrewses' "awareness of how the Shakers combined the material and spiritual worlds."
|Wooden Pail, Mount Lebanon, NY, 19th century. Andrews Collection, Hancock Shaker Village. (Photo by Michael Fredericks)
Those who have never been to the Fruitlands Art Gallery will find the space impressive, but those revisiting will find the gallery utterly transformed in a truly amazing way. Partitions create small room vignettes, which are thematically arranged to show every aspect of Shaker life. Exhibit attendee Ron Ostberg of Still River Road remarked, "Dividing it up like this is marvelous; it guides you to focus on individual pieces." Shaker pegboards, hung about two-thirds of the way up the walls, make a continuous border to the entire exhibit and act to bring scale to the pieces and to lend an intimate feeling to the "rooms." Befitting the Shaker aesthetic, the space feels ordered, simple, and beautiful.
While more than 90 percent of the objects are from the Andrews collection, housed at Hancock Village in Pittsfield, Mass., several items are from Fruitlands' own extensive collection. The exhibit offers a unique opportunity to see pieces from both these collections at the same time. The Fruitlands objects were chosen by co-curators Michael Volmar and John Ott to enhance and augment the Andrews pieces. For example, straight ahead from a "hallway" into the main gallery is a large, double desk of pine with hardwood, iron, and brass details, dating to 1840. Two writing surfaces fold down from the front and are hinged to the case. One of these is open, showing a series of pigeonholes and a small drawer, ingeniously designed to allow clearance when opened. Pulled up to the open desk is a Shaker chair from the Fruitlands collection, whose wood coloring almost perfectly matches that of the desk.
In remarks at the opening, Executive Director Wyona Lynch-McWhite made no attempt to hide her delight with the exhibit, calling it "a labor of love" and inviting attendees to celebrate it. Mike Volmar pointed out that Faith and Ted Andrews and Fruitlands Museum founder Clara Endicott Sears were contemporaries, collecting Shaker items from the same people. He remarked that he would love to have found evidence that they had had lunch together, but was unable to verify that they even knew each other. The exhibit is an opportunity to put the Fruitlands collection into a broader context, Volmar said. He recalled the excitement he and Ott experienced when the huge trailer truck drew up with the Andrews collection inside. As Ott opened boxes, "it was like someone had given him his old toys," said Volmar. John Ott was executive director at Hancock Shaker Village from 1970 to 1983; he had seen these pieces before.
Ott, who had a 37-year museum career and is currently on the board of directors at Fruitlands, explained that Faith and Ted Andrews, who started collecting in the mid-1920s, were experts on the day-to-day life of the Shakers; the items in their collection represent all aspects of Shaker life, from furniture to tools, to textiles, to grave markers. He urged viewers to look at things not just for their beauty, but to think of the context each was used in. Ott quoted the Shaker definition of perfection: "Something can be called perfect when it perfectly serves the purpose for which it was made."
The current exhibit displays only 60 percent of the pieces Fruitlands received from Hancock. It is greatly to Volmar's and Ott's credit that they made such thoughtful choices and included only pieces that really tell the story they envisioned.
For six decades of the 20th century, the Andrewses and Clara Endicott Sears gathered up the "fragments" of Shaker communities and preserved them for posterity. Edward and Faith Andrews, possibly the most well known of all the Shaker collectors, got to know many Shakers, and these personal connections both informed and aided their acquisition of pieces. Through their collecting and their scholarly contributions to the field, the Andrewses created and preserved a vast body of knowledge about Shaker society. They brought the art and history of the Shakers to the American public and put "Shaker furniture" into the vernacular.
|Spool Rack, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1870. Andrews Collection, Hancock Shaker Village. (Photo by Michael Fredericks)
Clara Endicott Sears' interest in Shakers actually predated that of the Andrewses by almost a decade. In 1912, while renovating and researching the Fruitlands farmhouse, Sears knew that the Alcotts had visited the Harvard Shaker Village, and so she did likewise. She met the handful of remaining eldresses, and the friendship was immediate and deep, with the eldresses believing that Sears shared a mystical experience with them. Knowing that the village would soon close, and knowing that Sears would preserve the history of their culture, the eldresses urged Sears to purchase their oldest building, the 1794 Trustees Office, for her museum. The Harvard Ministry authorized the eldresses to give their journals to Sears, who "cherished the records of the past, worn-out journals . . . outpourings from the heart long since laid at rest" and in 1916 paid for the publication of Sears' "Gleanings from old Shaker Journals."
In the southwest corner of the large gallery is a kitchen room, displaying a pie safe, cheese press, and apple corer, among other things. These "tools" reflect the simplicity and ingenuity behind all Shaker work, with each item perfectly serving the purpose for which it was made. A glass case hanging on one partition shows an applesauce label and printing block, dating to 1880. Again, the Shaker ingenuity is shown by the slot in the metal printing block. There were many applesauce makers and this slot allowed different names to be inserted in the same block. The printed label would be affixed to an applesauce firkin and used in the village or sold. Complementing the other items in the case is a Fruitlands Stereoview showing the inside of a Shaker print shop.
The east wall is devoted to writing desks and school items. A painted wood alphabet board from 1860 has exquisite cursive lettering, both upper and lower case. On loan from a private owner, the board was used at the Harvard Shaker School. A large cherry school desk from the early 19th century has six work places, each with a lidded compartment for holding books, papers, and writing implements.
Around the corner is the herbs and medical devices "room." A striking object here is a glass-front cupboard with pockets for 216 different herb and extract labels. Many of the labels still hold most of their original bright yellow color. At the door to the hallway, a large sign—looking very much like that at a railroad crossing— warns the viewer that he or she is about to enter "my Holy-Sanctuary saith the Lord." This sign and its counterpart in the next room were placed at the appropriate places in New Lebanon to warn the gawking world away during the period of manifestations, the 1830s and 1840s when Shakers believed that spirits visited chosen members of the community.
In the hallway are examples of gift drawings, which likely depict visions, gifts from the spirit world, widespread in the 1840s and 1850s. Immediately to the left of the doorway to the smaller gallery is a symbolic drawing from the Fruitlands collection, a "spiritual communication" received by a Shaker. Beautiful blue ink depicts doves, flowers, moons, a trumpet, and five trees; accompanying the symbols are script messages in tiny, perfectly legible handwriting, like calligraphy. Other objects in this vignette are a metal grave marker from the Harvard Village, discarded because it had an error; a cooling board for a dead body; a shroud of waxed material; and pieces of a dress belonging to Mother Ann.
Ahead, the matching crossing sign tells the viewer that "This is a place of trade and public business," with the warning that "Therefore we open it not on the Sabbath." A glass case holds a tapered tower of Shaker boxes, in bold yellow, blue, light yellow, and red tint. Another example of Shaker inventiveness is shown in a stave bench, where depressing the wooden pedal traps the material beneath the head so it can be shaved with a knife.
The Press caught up with Mike Volmar at the opening and asked him about his favorite object in the show. He described a yellow pail with a swing handle construction and steam-bent ash hoops joined by tucking the opposing ends into a notched hook. "I love the color, it's bright and vibrant," he said. A spool rack from 1870 gets marketing manager Mary Delaney's vote. She says that when she saw a picture, it looked quite large. In reality, it is very small, with orange-red spools of about one inch and one-and-a-half inches. The rack would have been used by four or five Sisters sewing together. Delaney loves that it is so delicate, with such beautiful colors. She also thinks it is a great invention. Enhancing the display of the spool rack and a spool of blue thread is a Fruitlands Stereoview showing Sisters at work. Shaker scholar Roben Campbell pointed out one of her favorites: a long, mostly blue runner woven of wool and cotton. "Indigo is the Shaker color," Campbell remarked. She offered high praise for the exhibit as a whole, saying, "I like the way it uses the space," and implying that she thinks objects are shown to greater advantage here than they were in the original exhibit at Hancock in 2008.
Viewers of the Gather Up the Fragments exhibit will undoubtedly have trouble choosing a favorite object. Each and every one is perfection.