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Music, art, and dance coming to Hancock Shaker Village

Shaker life may have been unadorned, but it was far from grim; their beliefs found expression in song no less than in exacting craftsmanship.

Hancock — It’s shaping up to be an art-filled summer at Hancock Shaker Village, with music, dance, and painting getting into the act in creative new ways at the historic site on Route 20 six miles west of Pittsfield.

Two superb new exhibits, “Borrowed Light,” featuring Barbara Ernst Prey’s watercolors of scenes at the Village, and “While Mighty Thunders Roll: Popular Artists Sing the Shakers,” open on Sunday, May 26, with an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Later, on July 6, choreographer Reggie Wilson and his Fist and Heel Performance Group will present aspecial, site-specific experience titled “…they stood shaking, while others began to shout”in the Village’s iconic 1826 Round Stone Barn.

Watercolorist Barbara Ernst Prey speaking about her painting “Wood Work.” Photo: Phil Holland

The term “borrowed light” refers to light entering an interior and otherwise dark room or passage from an adjoining space having windows or skylights. The Shakers were masters of this architectural practice, but eminent artist Barbara Prey, whose roots in the Berkshires go back to her time as a student at Williams College in the 1970s, and who also hold a master’s degree in Divinity from Harvard University, also interprets light in terms of the sect’s spiritual beliefs. Her 10 large-scale paintings, executed over the past year in and around the Village’s 20 buildings and at her Williamstown studio, capture moments when light enters rooms and illuminates furniture, objects, and strikingly colored Shaker clothing hanging from the ever-present peg-boards on the walls. The result renders light as coming from within as well as from without. The paintings have been beautifully installed in the 1878 brick Poultry House, with its low, south-facing windows designed to stimulate egg-laying by Shaker hens through the darker winter months.

Prey attributes her own productivity both to inspiration from the unceasing creativity of the Shakers and to the work rhythms she adopted in order to complete a commission from MASS MoCA in 2017, where she executed what may be the world’s largest watercolor painting (measuring 9 x 16 feet), depicting the interior of the Robert W. Wilson Building prior to its recent renovation. The contemplative composure of the luminous, numinous works on view in the Poultry House will guide visitors’ own appreciation for the beauty and spirituality of the Shaker environment.

Watercolorist Barbara Ernst Prey speaking about her painting “Channeled Light.” Photo: Phil Holland

The Shakers settled the Hancock community in the 1780s and eventually founded 22 communities from Maine to Kentucky over the course of the 19thcentury. Their distinctive way of life was characterized by communal living, gender equality, celibacy, pacifism, and religious devotion. Shaker life may have been unadorned, but it was far from grim; their beliefs found expression in song no less than in exacting craftsmanship. “Simple Gifts” may be the most widely known Shaker song, but there were some 25,000 others, of which roughly 10,000 survive. “These are not just songs,” wrote one Shaker believer, “but deep feelings from the soul.”

In “While Mighty Thunders Roll: Popular Artists Sing the Shakers,” Grammy-nominated producer Jeffrey Gaskill and Hancock Shaker Village curator Sarah Margolis-Pineo have assembled an impressive audio and video installation that brings 14 of these songs vividly to life in a capellaperformances by contemporary artists. Shaker song sheets, tune books, and musical instruments are also on display. The performers, videotaped against a plain white background, represent a wide range of American musical styles. Looking right at the camera, Natalie Merchant, Yo-Yo Ma, Tim Eriksen, Rayna Gellert, Alice Gerrard, Hiss Golden Messenger, Katell Keineg, Mountain Man, Allison Russell, and 12-year-old Little Nora Brown interpret songs of their own choosing. The Shaker sect has all but disappeared (the small community at Sabbathday Lake in Maine excepted), but in this exhibition their music lives gloriously on.

The Shakers came by their name from their communal dancing; they were originally known as the Shaking Quakers from the sometimes ecstatic and convulsive whirling of group dances performed as part of their religious services (though they seem to have moved mostly with shuffling steps). During a recent residency at the Pillow Lab and Hancock Shaker Village, Brooklyn-based Reggie Wilson has created POWERwith his Fist and Heel Performance Group, which imagines what black Shaker worship would have been like. The Shakers welcomed African American members into their communities as early as the late 1700s, assisted fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad, and would often purchase the freedom of slaves in southern communities. Wilson’s work will have its premiere at Jacob’s Pillow July 10-14, but the Round Stone Barn at the Village will be the scene of a site-specific performance July 6.

That’s a whole lot of art-making going on.

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