Global artists imagine Shaker sisters’ lives

Women worked here. Women lived here. When I walk through the Shaker kitchen, looking for Pinaree Sanpitak’s sculptures, I feel that in new ways. When she makes shapes out of mulberry paper and thread, she is echoing the curves of a woman’s body.

She calls her small works stupas. A stupa is a Buddhist sacred space, she says in the show, and a place for meditation. Hers are the size of mixing bowls. I look for them like a treasure hunt and find them sitting next to a black ash basket on a windowsill, and among mesh domes made to keep bugs away from a cooling pie, or nested in a copper pot on the wood stove. And I find them comforting.

Pinaree Sanpitak lives and works in Bangkok — she is one of the leading and most respected artists in Southeast Asia, Hancock Shaker Village tells me. And she has brought her work here this summer in A Spirit of Place, a Gift of Sharing, a show of three internationally known artists, guest curated by Dr. Miwako Tezuka.

Looking at this quiet kitchen through her eyes, I feel my perspective open, quietly, warmly … She makes me aware of the Shaker sisters as women. Women who dreamed and sweated. A woman stirred a jam kettle here over a hot stove until her shoulders were sore. A woman cut up peaches on the cutting board and felt the juice on her hands.

I realize that somehow I have felt distanced from knowing something that simple. Something in the way we talk about the Shakers has tended to take me away from that connection.

Maybe I’ve felt a kind of dislocation in the words people often choose, because the Shakers were celibate, because they did not have children, though they raised children — and maybe I have felt it because their own beliefs sometimes deliberately distanced them from the natural and sensual world.

So I’m thankful for the artists in this show for giving me a new sense of connection. Kimsooja from South Korea weaves with fiber and with light and fills the washroom and the meetinghouse with color — in elements and materials Shaker sisters would have made and touched every day.

And Yusuke Asai from Tokyo, Japan, paints abstract living images, and mixes paints and inks from plants and earth he foraged here in the woods. Petals and birds and creatures like coyotes fill the walls of a room that would otherwise hold only clear glass windows, whitewashed walls and a bed large enough for one person.

He has taken the gift drawings Shakers saw in dreams and drawn them outward. Where they saw trees of life, he is walking in the woods and finding roots between myth and living trees, the earth and the duff from the woods across the pasture, the wild grapes ripening, mushrooms and turkeys and nests.

When I saw elements of this show for the first time, earlier this summer, I asked a guide in the children’s discover room if Shaker girls ever had the chance to come outside, because the room gives a set of activities for girls and one for boys, and the boys’ daily jobs took them into the gardens and the barns while the girls seemed to spend their lives sewing.

Scarlet runner beans bloom on a sculpture made by the internationally recognized Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Scarlet runner beans bloom on a sculpture made by the internationally recognized Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak.

But a friend of mine grew up near the Shaker village in Canterbury, N.H., and listening to her stories, I think the sisters would have spent time in the gardens and the orchards, and the fields, and the woods.

Pinaree Sanpitak has come outside here too. She has made trellises for the gardens, and they are stupas too — and tall enough for a woman to stand in the center, in a ring of scarlet runner beans, and look upward at the curve of her own body, looking toward the sky.

She is working with the chef at the village’s cafe to create meals from the fruits and vegetables that will grow on her trellises — a project she has brought to 12 countries and 20 cities around the world.

That kind of convergence moved me strongly, feeling these artists from their own places in the world looking into this one. Of all that morning, one of the moments that stands out to me now … I walked into the cellar of the Round Stone Barn, into a passage as cool as a cave, and saw a palm tree.

Kimsooja has created film installations here, all on the theme of bringing together people and plants and artforms from many parts of the world. And here in a passage made of field stone and barn swallow nests, I was looking at a tree from the Pacific islands, or southern Asia, or Peru.

Scarlet runner beans bloom on a sculpture made by the internationally recognized Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak.
Sculpture by Pinaree Sanpitak

Scarlet runner beans bloom on a sculpture made by the internationally recognized Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak.

The trunk widened into a generous bowl and a crown of fronds, and I found myself wondering, do we have a word in English for the center where all of the palm leaves meet? Would we call it a calyx, like the green well that holds the petals of a wildflower?

I walked around the circle of the building, and when I came back, a family were sitting by that screen, and a girl stepped behind it to play with the shadows. The screen was showing fractal traceries of an organic shape like bone or shell or coral, and we could hear the sound of needles making lace, tapping like rain. She held out her arms wide and opened her shoulders as though she were going to dance.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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