As the poet Bill Berkson observed, it’s important to protect the mystery.
Years ago in the salon-style exhibition Open Secrets at Fraenkel Gallery, I encountered a mystery in the form of a drawing. Cryptic linear and geometric configurations hovered between writing and drawing. It vibrated high up on the wall, unlike anything I’d ever seen.
The drawing seemed to speak in tongues. I was mesmerized. Growing up in New York as the child of an artist and being an artist myself, I’d been looking at all kinds of art my whole life. Yet there was nothing remotely like this in my frame of reference.
This singular marvel was a Shaker gift drawing, made during a brief period in the mid-nineteenth century. Shaker girls and women referred to as “instruments” received revelatory messages in their dreams. The messages came from Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784), early Shaker saints, and friendly spirits, and were intended for specific members of the community. Upon awakening, the instrument would recount the message to a maker (known makers include thirteen women and three men) who made a visual transcription for the intended recipient and others in the community.
The Shakers did not call these works drawings — they referred to them variously as sacred rolls, sacred sheets, spirit messages, signs, notices, presents, and other terms. Nor did they display them, as ornamentation was banned from Shaker life. They rolled them up and carefully put them away, only taking them out on occasion for contemplation and study.
Gift drawings articulate energies that cannot be contained in any one modality. Fragments of recognizable English are woven within indecipherable scriptive forms. They transverse arcane text, geometry, musical notation (conventional and anomalous), prayer, and traditional American folk art iconography (birds, leaves, candles, hearts, fans, trumpets, etc.); the energy flow elides one form to another.
In Shaker life and cultural production, divergent energies co-existed and were made manifest. Guiding principles of simplicity, intentionality and grace shaped design and facture, while an array of ecstatic enigmas — gift drawings, dances, songs — emerged in counterpoise.
My first glimpse of a gift drawing opened a door for me into the Shaker world. A decade later this led me to Mount Lebanon, New York, the quiet luminous landscape where visionaries and makers of gift drawings had once resided in the founding community of the Shakers. I had been invited to do a project there by the Shaker Museum, and one of the oldest buildings beckoned to me. Built in 1829, the Brethren’s Workshop is suffused with light and peacefulness: a poignant tension exists between the clarity and integrity of the structure and its state of deterioration.
For one month in 2006, I worked each day in solitude and silence. The result is Gift, a long-term installation comprised of eight small paintings made directly on the walls and one window.