Francis Cape's communal benches makes art of conversation at Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum and Library


NEW LEBANON, N.Y. -- Sunlight slants across seven benches of a dark golden poplar, local wood.

People slept on benches like these. They prayed, sang in unison and sat for meals on summer nights after they got the hay in.

Sculptor Francis Cape has made more than 24 benches in the styles of communal societies from 1732 to today, and seven of them have come to the place that inspired him to make the first one -- to the Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum and Library.

In their early days, the Shakers built the first Mount Lebanon meetinghouse in 1785 along the Albany-Boston post road, and an organized community lived and grew here until 1942. Eight "families" or celibate groups lived here -- at its largest, some 600 people on 6,000 acres of land, said Wyatt Erchak, museum coordinator at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum and Library.

Today the museum is working to preserve the buildings where the North Family lived and made and sold goods: a granary with a grain elevator; a dwelling house; the sister's shop where the women spun, wove and made bonnets and gifts to sell in the shop; the brothers' workshop, where the men made hats and shoes, cabinets and paper packets of seeds in wooden boxes.

Beside them, the 1859 Great Stone Barn, the largest stone barn in the U.S., is recognized by the World Monuments Fund -- and it is a shell. It burned in 1972, Erchak said. Since 2004, the museum has led a major effort to stabilize the building and renovate it.

Now the quiet, cool rooms of the wash house hold Francis Cape's installation, "We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists to Zoar." He has also curated a show of Shaker objects, the first time the museum has shown items from its collections here, at the site of the village.

Cape learned woodcraft in England before, as the Shakers did, he came to live in the U.S. For the last 10 years and more, he said, he has wanted to make a work about the society Americans live in. Historically, the U.S. celebrates materialism and individualism, he said -- the lone pioneer on the frontier -- but in his experience here, most in the U.S. don't live that way.

In communities like his small hometown in upstate New York, people depend on one another, he said. He has served as an EMT and in the volunteer ambulance service for about 20 years. He has seen his immediate neighbor cook three dinners and carry one to the man across the street.

"It's a part of life not spoken about," he said.

He wanted to speak about this kind of cooperative living, neighborliness. And so he thought of creating an artwork about communal societies.

He began by making a meetinghouse bench from Mount Lebanon.

"A bench is a great symbol of sharing," he said. "You sit with others on the same level."

People can use his benches.

In any installation, he always has them arranged in a circle, so that people sitting on them will face each other, not sit looking toward one speaker at the end of the room. And he makes benches without backs, he said, so that they would not lead people to sit with their backs to each other. In many of his exhibits, people have held talks sitting on his benches.

He will speak at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum on Saturday, July 12, about his work.

He wanted to find communities that held possessions in common, he said.

"They were and are mostly religious," he said. "Religious communities lasted longer, because central ideas are accepted by everyone and act as a guide. Everybody is there for a spiritual end."

At Mount Lebanon, the Shakers practiced celibacy, submission to the elders, giving up worldly goods, pacifism and equality between men and women. But that spiritual end could lead to a comfortable way of life.

Though some communities believed that time on earth mattered only as a way to prepare for the next life -- and some looked for a Second Coming within their own lifetimes -- some of these communities set out to establish a heaven on earth, Cape said, and many had beautiful places, abundant gardens and good food, as the Shakers did at their height.

"As a community, the Shakers behaved like a corporation toward the rest of the world," he said. "They were respected for the quality of their goods and for their honesty."

The Hutterites, a community much like the Mennonites of the Amish, still flourish, he said, and have at times prospered more than the traditional farmers near them.

"It's a lesson to us all," he said. "Pulling together really works."

Because he focused on communities founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries, his benches come from Christian communities, though the 20th century saw communities built around other beliefs, and he is not Christian. He has focused on societies that had, he felt, non-material values.

He tells a story about a young man from one such society who trained as a doctor, and who asked for a larger allowance in recognition of the time and skill he had invested. An elder answered him by pointing to a shepherd and saying "doesn't he, too, do the work he is asked to do as well as he can?"

Do these communal societies, then, have a value for different skills? Yes, Cape said -- as the skills benefit the society. The society decides what skills have value, as American society does now.

They valued humanity more than vanity, he suggested. They valued their group and their common beliefs. And they valued the smooth finish of a well-planed board of poplar wood.

If you go ...

What: Francis Cape will speak on art installation, ‘We Sit Together: Utopian Benches from the Shakers to the Separatists to Zoar'

When: 11 a.m. Saturday, July 12

Where: Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum & Library, off Route 20, New Lebanon, N.Y.

Information: (518) 794-9100,


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