"Borrowed Light": Barbara Ernst Prey

Artist captures history, natural light of Shaker village


Light was important to the Shakers. So important, they built their living quarters and work spaces in a manner that allowed "God's light" to flow through them.

Using networks of doors and stairways, along with large windows, skylights, portholes and reflective surfaces, the Shakers "borrowed light" and illuminated the darkest of interior spaces.

It was that light that artist Barbara Ernst Prey spent three seasons observing, sketching, interpreting, reinterpreting and painting.

"I spent a lot of time at Hancock Shaker Village, just looking and thinking, walking through in the different seasons," Prey said during a recent interview at the village, where her latest watercolor exhibit, "Borrowed Light," was being prepped for installation. The exhibit opens Sunday and is on view through Nov. 11.

She spent many mornings and afternoons, she said, in quiet reflection at the village, observing how light filtered into the rooms; how the light changed throughout the day and changed the mood within that space. She observed the shadows being cast by objects in the room and contemplated the history of the objects and of the space.

From there, she began sketching; recording the light at different times of days. She created small studies in her sketch pad and then began drawing, experimenting with composition and lighting. She created a total of 30 drawings, as reference points, before setting out to paint.

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"It's not [about] coming into the space and taking a picture and moving on. It's about spending time in the space, but it's also about the story," Prey said. "This has the story of the Shakers. It's historic. If we take a deeper dive, there's the utopian community they created here and the objects they made ... I'm very interested in the handmade. I think in our world, where everything is so technologically driven, the design piece, the concept of looking and the light of the Shakers is what drew me in."

She began by focusing on areas associated with the work of the Shaker women, in places like the laundry wash room and the sisters' weave shop.

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In "Channeling Light," a 38.5-inch-by-58.5-inch watercolor on paper, early morning light rakes across the laundry wash room walls and floor, illuminating a wash basin and nearby bucket that will be the focus of the Shaker sisters who spend their day in the space.

In "Spindles," Prey focuses on the brightly colored spools of thread found in the weave room and the shadows they cast on the wall behind them.

"I was drawn to them by their colors and the lighting and how they were tied into women's work," Prey said of the spools of thread. "And personally, it reminded me of my mother. [Peggy Ernst] was head of the design department at Pratt Institute. Growing up, I knew her as an artist and a designer. Later, I knew her as a textile designer. Her textile designs were everywhere."

Incorporating the narrative of the space into her paintings is an essential part of her process. And in some cases, the layers of narrative are as many as the layers of watercolor washes she uses to build the light and shadows in her paintings.

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Such was the case with "Building 6 Portrait: Interior," her largest watercolor to date, 8-feet-by-15-feet, of the pre-renovation state of Building 6 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The painting, the largest known watercolor, not only holds the narrative of what the space looked like historically, but also a bit of personal history. As a student at Williams College, Prey studied under famed art historian S. Lane Faison, who took her on a tour of the former Sprague Electric Co. building prior to it becoming a museum.

That long ago visit with Faison, she said, is part of the narrative the massive watercolor.

Faison would have a huge impact on Prey, who after graduating from Williams in 1979 (and later earned a degree from Harvard Divinity School), would meet up with him again while studying in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar. In addition to her studies, Prey would work for The New Yorker; commissioned by NASA to paint four works for its collection; and receive the commission, in 2003, to create the White House Christmas card. Since 2008, she has been the only visual artist on the National Council on the Arts, the advisory body of the National Endowment for the Arts.

She said all of her life experiences, as well as a lifelong interest in the simplicity of Shaker design, have contributed to "Borrowed Light" in some fashion.

"To do this exhibit is really an extension of my interests [in architecture and Shaker design]. It's an extension of my studies at Williams College with Lane; an extension of my work for The New Yorker; an extension of my divinity studies at Harvard," she said. "This exhibit is a combination of different parts of my life."


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