“Gather up the Fragments: the Andrews Shaker Collection,” a new exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, explores the humanity and belief system behind the superb craftsmanship and aesthetic simplicity of the United Society of Believer in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers. Lesley Herzberg, the Collections Manager at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, MA, emphasizes that the beautiful items we see on display are not merely objects that bespeak their creators’ accomplished work, but also testimony of the Shaker community’s belief in sustainable living, local community, and gender equality. Curator Katie Delmez argues that this is an important exhibit for the contemporary Nashville public because “many of their ideas and beliefs continue to resonate with us today.” By bringing current debates into contact with a larger historical trajectory, the Frist Center is helping to contextualize discussions of sustainability, “green” living, and social equality and giving Middle Tennesseans the broad perspective needed to navigate those issues today.
While the objects and artistry on display in the Frist Center’ s Upper-Level Galleries reflect the Shakers’ core aesthetic belief in form following function, the juxtaposition of furniture, clothing, and utensils from different eras of Shaker history (ranging from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth) also demonstrates this industrious group’s willingness to explore innovative alternatives and contemporary design trends. Unlike many of their utopian counterparts—such as the Amish and the Quakers—the Shakers readily embraced new technology and concepts to improve the efficiency of their tools and structures.
Like any good exhibit, “Gather up the Fragments” challenges our previous assumptions and knowledge of the Shakers in order to give us a more profound understanding of who these people were and why they pursued a life that often was out of step with the mainstream society of their time. The exhibit time shows us how the Shakers incorporated vibrant, festive colors into their clothing, furniture, and interior design in order to explore the joyful attitude shared amongst these communities of believers. Perhaps the most unusual contribution of the exhibit is to display “gift drawings,” an element of Shaker spirituality that is largely unknown. Many Shaker women would produce drawings full of brilliant colors, shapes, patterns, and text that reflected spiritual visions they had received. These drawings were given to another member of the community who was the only person capable of discerning the image’s hidden spiritual meaning. The exhibition’s designers have done well to place these drawings in the gallery’s final space, as the entire collection builds toward these intensely personal images, which open a door into the hearts and minds of those who placed so much value and meaning in these fragments of paper.
Drawing its title from John 6:12, a significant scripture to Shaker communities, “Gather up the Fragments” lives up to its name in another way by bringing together disparate threads of Shaker craftsmanship and identity into a single location so that contemporary viewers can gain a greater understanding of the larger worldview of this unique religious group. Referring to the miraculous event in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with only a few fish and loaves of bread, the text from John 6:12 reads: “Gather up the fragments, that nothing may be lost.” The Frist Center has succeeded in recovering a powerful picture of Shaker culture so that its tradition and lessons will not be lost for new generations in Middle Tennessee.
The exhibit will be open at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through August 21, 2011. Visit sometime this week to have access to “Gather up the Fragments” and “Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior,” which closes May 29, 2011.
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