Nari Ward


Threshold; Vertical Hold

Nari Ward was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963; he lives in New York. He first visited Sabbathday Lake from November 17 to 19, 1995 with France Morin, Janine Antoni, and Kazumi Tanaka. He returned the following summer. He has described his initial decision to participate in the project as follows: "My work is primarily installation—creating environments for people to experience particular objects or the history of a space. I agreed to participate because of the challenge. It was scary to get involved in this project. Reading about the Shakers and seeing their pictures, I had the idea that they were a cold, solemn group. Getting to know them and trying to learn more about myself was a major commitment. At first I wasn't interested in the religious aspect, but then I reflected deeply on what they were trying to deal with in their own lives. It was an everyday thing. In the testimonials they would talk about it. After a while it was easy for me to connect to it. Not just in terms of where it led me in my work, but personally" (Nari Ward, in Janet A. Kaplan, "The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and the Shakers: A Conversation with Janet A. Kaplan," Art Journal 57, no. 2 (Summer 1998): p. 7). Both of the works that emerged from Ward's experience at Sabbathday Lake, Threshold (1996) and Vertical Hold (1996), renew Shaker materials that the artist uncovered during his stay and may be read as holding vessels that both protect and restrain their contents.

The cradle in Threshold combines both new and old parts of a porch from the Sisters' Shop, which was rebuilt the summer before he arrived, with two banisters from a church in Harlem that are placed inside the cradle. Their physical dialogue suggests Ward's reconsideration of his own Baptist upbringing in light of his Shaker experience. Ward was well aware of the difficulty of dealing with materials that have such a powerful legacy of their own, and he wanted to make a work that would transcend and transform these meanings. Using a weaving pattern that evokes Shaker basket making, he laced strips of burlap—a material associated with planting trees—between the wooden slats of the cradle, while its interior is covered with earth.

Vertical Hold consists of recuperated bottles, dug up from Shaker grounds, and woven together with yarn. Prior to his stay, Ward had been interested in the "bottle trees" found in the yards of some African American families. For these families, as he has stated, "[t]he bottle was a metaphor for the idea of the spirit, something invisible but very present that can become a container" (ibid., p. 16). During his stay, Ward became interested in how the Shakers experience the concept of the manifestation of the Spirit in their lives. For him, the act of collecting bottles became a means of making connections between his experience and that of the Shakers. As he has also stated, "It's this idea that you are on the right path. Like faith. Their faith is really strong. They are totally committed to it in every way, and you learn from that. For Vertical Hold I dug for unbroken bottles every day. Every time I would find one it was a moment of joy. I tried to correlate that with this idea of faith. I didn't know what I was going to do with these things. I just knew that I wanted to collect as many as possible" (ibid., p. 16).