The following text is adapted from France Morin, "Simple Gifts," in Heavenly Visions: Shaker Gift Drawings and Gift Songs, exh. cat. (New York: The Drawing Center, Los Angles: UCLA Hammer Museum, and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
In 1843 Sister Sophia F. Mace wrote that she had seen a vision of heaven: "On the morning of the eighteenth of September, eighteen hundred and forty two, as I was busily engaged in my usual occupation, I heard a sudden noise like that of a strong wind, and rain beating powerfully upon the house. I quickly arose and passed along toward the window; and observed that the natural elements were all calm and still; but I cannot describe or paint on paper that which I saw, took every natural thing from my view, and my soul was swallowed up in adoration and love for God." While Sister Sophia was unable to record her vision, many "instruments" during Mother Ann's Work, a period of intense religious activity that took place during the 1830s and 1840s, received visions from heavenly spirits that were recorded in the form of drawings, either by the instruments themselves or by others. This was truly, as Sister Mildred R. Barker (1897-1990) wrote, "the season of the Spirit Drawings whose messages are now hidden in the deep things of God." To be sure, the term drawing is a misnomer, because the Shakers did not use it themselves when they were referring to these works. In the few Shaker documents in which the gift drawings are mentioned, they are typically referred to as sheets, rolls, signs, notices, tokens of love, presents, rewards, hearts—sometimes prefaced by the adjective sacred. This definition focuses on the function of the works as gifts from heavenly spirits, rather than on the form in which the gifts were materialized. In fact, the gift drawings often include titles, captions, inscriptions, and extended texts, in English as well as in scripts written in indecipherable tongues, that place them on an uninterrupted continuum with other manifestos of belief, such as inspired writing, ecstatic movement, and spontaneous speech, especially in the form of song. The Shakers did not distinguish the medium of drawing as we know it, a unique medium with its own distinct properties, from forms of spiritual practice.
In his 1983 checklist of gift drawings, the scholar Daniel W. Patterson listed 192 known drawings. Since the publication of this list, a handful of additional drawings have surfaced. Almost all of the drawings, which range from two-inch squares to sheets several feet long, were executed in pen and ink and watercolor on paper. Of the sixteen known makers, thirteen are women and three are men, mostly in the Shaker communities in New Lebanon, New York, and Hancock, Massachusetts (Patterson notes that at least 154 of the drawings are from New Lebanon). Some of these women and men signed their drawings, and authorship has been attributed to others. Many of the gift drawings demonstrate formal similarities with traditionally feminine crafts outside of Shaker culture, such as needlework, quilt making, plate painting, and samplers. And within Shaker culture, the act of making gift drawings may be aligned with other modes of labor, such as sweeping, that the Shakers classified as women's work and sacralized. Sacralization socially legitimated these modes of labor by elevating them to expressions of spirituality.
Inspired by visionary experiences, the gift drawings bridge the heavenly and the earthly spheres. Many portray glorious images of heaven intended to demonstrate to young, middle-aged, and elderly Believers the rewards that would await them by remaining faithful and by living their lives in accordance with Shaker precepts. One individual from New Lebanon created a meticulously drafted plan of the Heavenly City with compass and ruler, imaging heaven as a perfectly balanced array of circles, squares, and rectangles that signified walls, architectural structures, and roads. Others depicted delicately rendered trees, fruits, flowers, and other natural forms, as well as Shaker meeting houses, chairs, tables, clocks, chains, necklaces, and other human-made structures and objects, rendered more decorative than those common in daily life on earth. Other gift drawings are replete with esoteric symbols, including Masonic symbols such as the all-seeing eye and checkerboard patterns. Gift drawings are also typically distinguished by their precise graphic quality, which links words elegantly written in upright, noble scripts with their delicately rendered visual counterparts as unified elements of thoroughly structured designs. Portraying heaven as an idealized image of the earth, the gift drawings exemplified the Shakers' view of their community as the Kingdom of God.
The fact that female Believers created most of the known gift drawings offers evidence of the complexity of Shaker women's experience during this period. As the scholar Marjorie Procter-Smith argues, the institutionalization of Shakerism after the death of the charismatic Mother Ann Lee had resulted in a more structured community in which the power of women was strictly regulated within a hierarchical system. She goes on to state the "outbreak of 'spiritual gifts,' initially at least uncontrolled by the leadership, was in some sense inevitable. . . . During [the period of Mother Ann's Work,] women again began to exercise some of the spiritual power that had been known in the first period of the movement's history. Women were again prominent as prophets, 'instruments,' and artists who received spiritual gifts quite independently of the hierarchy of the ministry. But . . . whatever potential for power there may have been in the image of Holy Mother Wisdom, it was an image very swiftly domesticated."
How the gift drawings were used by the community is not entirely clear from surviving documents. Although the 1821 Millennial Laws do not prohibit the display of pictures, the 1845 Laws include the following ruling: "No maps, charts, and no pictures or paintings, shall ever be hung up in your dwelling-rooms, shops, or office. And no pictures or paintings set in frames, with glass before them shall ever be among you." This would seem to suggest that the gift drawings were not displayed on an everyday basis, at least during the period of Mother Ann's Work (by 1860, the Shakers had begun to relax the 1845 Laws). Instead, it is more likely that they were kept privately by those to whom they were given or by the spiritual leadership in the Ministry and then shown to Believers on specific occasions. But as the period of Mother Ann's Work faded into history, the gift drawings seem to have been largely forgotten by both the Shakers and the outside world until the early twentieth century—in marked contrast to the gift songs, which remained popular from the time of their creation.