Davenport Museum of Art

Davenport, IA




Crafting Utopia, The Art of Shaker Women

October 1 - November 26, 2000


The Davenport Museum of Art is proud to host Crafting Utopia, The Art of Shaker Women, through November 26, 2000, featuring historical artifacts from the Hancock (Massachusetts) Shaker Village, one of the last Shaker villages to close. The village stands today as a museum and monument to the simplicity and integrity of the Shaker tradition and its continuing influence on American folk art and aesthetics.

The Hancock Shaker Village contains the largest and most representative collection of artifacts available to the public at an original Shaker site. Its furniture, tools and equipment, household objects, textiles and other objects reflect the significant role of Shaker people in American social, religious and economic life. Approximately 125 of these objects are on display in the Davenport Museum of Art Main Gallery. (left: wooden basket forms)

Who were the Shakers?

The American Shaker church was founded in 1774 by a small group of followers from Manchester, England. In 1787 the Shakers founded a central independent communal colony at New Lebanon, New York, where they could live, work and worship without persecution. As more followers joined this faith, nineteen Shaker communities were established in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.


Why were they called "Shakers"?

The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing was the official name of this group, but they are more commonly known as Shakers. They earned the name Shakers, or "Shaking Quakers" because of their ecstatic group dancing, which was an important feature of their religious services.


What did the Shakers believe?

Though they were celibate, the Shakers are the most enduring religious experiment in American history. The Shaker religion reached its peak in the mid-1800s, with an estimated six thousand members. Shakers believed in pacifism and feminism, freedom from prejudice, natural health and hygiene, and for more than 200 years insisted that their followers should strive for simplicity and perfection in everything they did. Although men and women lived and worked separately as Brothers and Sisters, they shared equally all positions of authority - both spiritual and temporal.


Are the Shakers still active today?

Shakerism began to decline after the Civil War as America industrialized and the country expanded west. The religious revivals, which had brought many converts to the Shaker way of life, lost momentum and fewer people found the Shaker culture appealing. Communities began to close in the late 1800s and today only one Shaker community remains at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The Shakers, however, have left a strong legacy of accomplishments and an approach to life, which is still relevant to people today.


What makes Shaker objects so unique?

Shaker design is distinguished by simplicity of form, harmonious relationship of parts, good workmanship, and utility. Even the simplest of Shaker items suggest a very high quality of workmanship and appreciation for the natural beauty of materials. Shaker craftsmen were not usually permitted to sign their works, for this represented a display of personal pride. (left: traditional wooden Shaker box)


Why is the Shaker style so popular?

Shaker furniture has never been more popular than it is today. Whether it's because Shaker forms evoke a purer lifestyle or because they are purely beautiful, their simple lines and uncluttered surfaces have appealed to furniture buyers for generations. Shaker antiques command astronomical prices; historical reproductions fetch sizable sums, and mass marketers sell huge quantities of their own versions of Shaker benches, tables, and chairs. Today, millions of people can recognize a ladder-back rocker or a candle stand as "Shaker." However, few people understand the profound spirituality that gave birth to these classic pieces.


What are the hallmarks of Shaker artistry?

Because ornate forms represented a worldliness, which they had abandoned, the Shakers kept decoration to a minimum. The Shaker sense of artistry, however, is expressed in a variety of symbols used. For example, the heart is a symbol of love; lamps and candles represent heavenly light; doves, birds and the falling feather reflect the daily speech of the Shakers. The clock signifies mortality, while trees, a common symbol in drawings, represent the Tree of Life.


What inspired the Shakers in their handiwork?

Although furniture may be the Shakers' best-known legacy to the outside world, it is only one aspect of their work on earth. Shakers wanted to glorify God through all of their labor, whether they were peeling a potato, mending a dress, sweeping a floor, or turning a chair leg. Spirituality permeated every aspect of their lives. By living mindfully, in conscious emulation of Christ, the Shakers aspired to create a heaven on this earth.

International Arts and Artists has organized this exhibition especially for the DMA. After the showing in Davenport, these objects will travel to The Louvre in Paris. The exhibition is presented locally through financial support from The Beaux Arts Committee and media sponsorship by the Quad-City Times.

See this magazine's earlier article: Shaker: Furnishings for the Simple Life (3/16/99).

Read more about the Davenport Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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