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Spirituality of the Shakers celebrated in Hancock Shaker Village's first major exhibit of contemporary Asian art

'A Spirit of Gift, A Place of Sharing' brings together works of Yusuke Asai, Pinaree Sanpitak, Kimsooja

linens on clotheslines

Original Shaker linens hang from clotheslines in the Laundry & Machine Shop as ethereal light streams in from windows covered in film to create a sacred atmosphere. The scene is part of work created by South Korean artist Kimsooja, as part of the ongoing exhibit "A Spirit of Gift, A Place of Sharing," at Hancock Shaker Village.

PITTSFIELD — Japanese artist Yusuke Asai spent nearly three weeks collecting soil, stone, clay and brick from trails and riverbeds at Hancock Shaker Village, in Williamstown and in Cheshire to create pigments of varying shades of red, orange, yellow, brown, and black.

With the pigments — 18 in all — Asai went to work in Hancock Shaker Village’s Poultry House, painting murals on the floors and walls with his own version of a Shaker gift drawing.

“Dream is the source of [the Shakers] divine inspiration and experience,” said guest curator Miwako Tezuka, during the opening of “A Spirit of Gift, A Place of Sharing: Yusuke Asai, Pinaree Sanpitak, Kimsooja,” on view at Hancock Shaker Village through Nov. 14.

Believing they could receive messages from those who had died, the Shakers or Believers, as they called themselves, were part of the Spiritualist movement that swept the nation beginning in the 1830s. From the 1830s to the 1850s, members of the Shakers, mostly at Hancock and the communities in Mount Lebanon and Watervliet, N.Y., received messages from the spirit world in their dreams. Called “Mother’s Work” or “The Era of Spirit Manifestations,” the messages, believed to be from Mother Ann Lee (founder of the Shaker movement whom was believed to be the second coming of Jesus Christ) were in turn interpreted in song and as “gift drawings.”

Art in the brick poultry house

Japanese artist Yusuke Asai Poultry created 18 different pigments from soil, stone and clay collected from Hancock Shaker Village and the vicinity which were used to paint murals, in the style of Shaker 'gift drawings' on the walls and floors of the Poultry House. 

It was these “gift drawings” that inspired Asai’s site specific installation, “Hands and Dreams.” In one room of the Poultry House, a bed sits in the middle of the room. On three walls, are Asai’s murals, painted in soft tones of the pigments he’s made from the collected soils and stones. There, a boat filled with mystical creatures, a tree of life and various Shaker symbols floats on a swirling waves of the ocean. In an accompanying room, the “gift drawing” swirls across the floor.

“This room is a re-created memory of the Shakers, the murals are the ‘gift drawings’ that this Shaker is dreaming,” Tezuka says to a gathered crowd. “This Shaker, he or she, is dreaming of the migration from north England, where the Shakers originally came from. They settled here. They created their own lifestyle.

“You can kind of imagine how this dream is coming to life in the other room. It is taking root.”

On the remaining walls are re-creations of actual Shaker “gift drawings,” which Asai reproduced, channeling the Shaker’s emotions as he painted.

“In his mind, this is a collaboration between himself and the Shakers of the past,” Tezuka said.

Asai, through a translator, said that the pigments are natural and at the close of the show will be washed away.

Stupas are placed on the shelves of an oven

A series of paper sculptures "The Affairs of Breast Stupas," by artist Pinaree Sanpitak are positioned to mingle with everyday Shaker utensils displayed in various spaces of the Brick Dwelling at Hancock Shaker Village.

“That’s how he does his murals. It’s momentarily here. It’s very ephemeral. That’s part of the natural cycle — life and death and rebirth. It comes and goes and constantly informing the cycle of life,” Tezuka said.

Asai added, “Please look at these works as a full installation, thinking about that momentary existence and in appreciation of that particular moment in time.

The campus-wide exhibition brings together the works of three major Asian artists, Asai, of Japan; Sanpitak, of Thailand, and Kimsooja, of South Korea. Although the three artists are of different backgrounds and work in different mediums, all three found connection, spiritually, with the Shakers.

Sanpitak, a feminist artist whose art focuses on the female form, worked with the village’s blacksmith and gardener to create three topiary stupas, beautiful breast-shaped forms where Berkshire and Thai herbs and vegetables will grow on the trellis-like structures. Those vegetables and herbs will be used to create dishes at Bimi’s Café using the farm’s produce as part of an ongoing global collaborative art-and-food project using Sanpitak’s stupa-shaped cooking molds and crockery.

A steel wire sculpture

Artist Pinaree Sanpitak worked with a blacksmith at Hancock Shaker Village to create Breast Stupa Topiary, an outdoor immersive sculpture installation. Berkshire and Thai herbs and vegetables will eventually grow up the steel wires. 

The former utopian society is an ideal spot for Sanpitak’s work, a place where women and men stood equal. Inspired by the simple, joyous and nurturing lifestyle of the Shakers, Sanpitak chose to work in the Brick Dwelling as well — the central living space of the Hancock Shakers. There, stupas made from torn mulberry paper are found in various locations in the kitchen and pantries, lining shelves and filling a bread oven.

In the Laundry and Machine Shop, Kimsooja, who works with textiles and the human labors related to it — sewing, weaving, and threading — has chosen Shaker linens from the living history museum’s collection, hanging them on clotheslines in the washroom. Appearing to be just hung out to dry, they move in the breeze from open doorways, as natural light spills through the nearby doorway. The light, filtered through colored film applied to the neighboring rooms windows, glows with ethereal light.

To the Shakers, work was a form of worship,” Director Jennifer Trainer Thompson said during a stop in the Laundry & Machine Shop. “They used to say ‘hands to work, hearts to God.’ The artist, she wanted to elevate doing laundry to the divine. She created this atmosphere that is cathedral-like, sacred.”

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6229. On Twitter: @BE_DigitalJen

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.

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