Artists And Shakers

My husband and I are making eight Shaker chairs from kits. When the final coats of butcher's wax are rubbed in by hand and the checkerboard seats are woven, they will grace our dining room with lovely simplicity.

We certainly aren't the first ones to admire Shaker design and its clean, handsome aesthetic. And there's much more to Shakers than fine furniture.

"Hands to work and hearts to God" is the motto that has always inspired this religious group's daily activity - from building barns to planting vegetables to composing folk songs (10,000 in all).

Making chairs from kits is one way we can get closer to the Shakers. Others have come much closer. For example, a group of 10 international artists lived, worked, and worshiped alongside seven Shakers during the summer of 1996 at the Sabbathday Lake community in Maine.

New York-based curator France Morin came up with the idea for the residency as a way to "explore the confluence of spirituality and art in everyday life" - something she saw missing in modern society but very present with Shakers. She didn't set out to make Shakers out of artists or vice versa, but to encourage a respectful sharing between the two.

And she pulled it off. At first the Shakers were reluctant. They didn't see how the modern artists would fit into their well-ordered lives. And Ms. Morin thought the artists wouldn't want to "get up at 6 to clean barns."

But the artists were able to blend in and turn the experience into some fascinating works. "The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art and the Shakers," at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, includes their artworks as well as a 45-minute documentary featuring interviews with the Shakers, the artists, Morin, and Gerard C. Wertkin, director of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York.

"Something magical happened" when these two groups came together, says Morin in the film. Artist Domenico de Clario says living with the Shakers gave him "a sense of the potential of a spiritual life." And brother Wayne Smith, one of the Shakers interviewed, says the artists "became one of the family."

"The Quiet in the Land" began as a premise, a set of questions, and evolved into a wide variety of enriching individual experiences, says Morin. Bravo to her for organizing such a bold project, for bridging the two cultures, and for challenging what she calls a "widespread belief" that art, life, and spirituality exist in separate realms.

* 'Quiet in the Land' is on view in Boston through Sept. 27. It is tentatively scheduled to travel to New York's Museum of American Folk Art in 2000. The video is available for $30 plus $4 shipping by writing to the Institute of Contemporary Art, 955 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02115.

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