Big in 2014: the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
Founded in 1783 in what was then called Thompson’s Pond Plantation, the community consists of eighteen buildings, an orchard, a tree farm, vegetable and herb gardens, livestock pastures, and hay fields, all spread over eighteen-hundred acres of land. The community practices traditional Shaker crafts—basket-making, weaving, printing—although only three of its members—Sister Francis, Brother Arnold and Sister June—are still active today.
This summer, the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, will honor the Sabbathday Lake community with its 2014 Maine in America Award, which is presented to an individual or group who has made an outstanding contribution to Maine’s role in American art. Prior honorees include Robert Indiana and Alex Katz. They and the three elderly Shakers may seem like strange bedfellows.
Equally unlikely is their association with the famously innovative Wooster Group, whose Early Shaker Spirituals is currently playing in New York. The show—part of an ongoing series based on recordings—is grounded on an eponymous 1976 LP recorded by the Sisters of Sabbathday Lake. Using a technique the company pioneered, the actors wear earpieces through which they hear, as they perform, the actual recordings of Shaker songs. The show also includes pattern dances, inspired by surviving fragments of Shaker ecstatic dance. (You can see clips of a rehearsal here, and watch the actors morph from ecstatic Shakers back into actors, joking and laughing.)
These are real and fitting tributes to people whose work and art have added genuine beauty to the world—it’s gratifying to see the community receiving attention while there are still Shakers around, and to know that there is a living record of their history. And yet, one wonders: will the three surviving members come to New York to see the show? Will they go to the Farnsworth Summer Gala to accept their award?
Here’s the schedule of their days, as laid out on the Sabbathday site:
We all rise as duty dictates.
The Great Bell on the Dwelling House rings to summon all to breakfast.
Morning Prayers. We read (responsively) two Psalms, followed by Bible readings, prayer, silent prayer and ending with the singing of a Shaker song.
Dinner. This is the main meal of the day.
Prayer Meeting is held on Wednesday at 5:00 p.m., followed by a class on Shaker Studies.
Sunday Meeting is held at 10:00 am. During the summer months Meeting is held in the Meeting House. The remainder of the year we meet in the Chapel in the Dwelling House.
The site is a museum, yes, and open to tourists. You can visit; it is very beautiful. But of course it will go on whether we do or not—for a little while yet.