The Story


The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and the Shakers is the first project organized by The Quiet in the Land. From May through August 1996, ten artists, as well as project director France Morin and project coordinator Tony Guerrero, lived, worked, and worshipped with the only active Shaker community in the world, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. At the time, the Shaker community consisted of Sister Frances A. Carr (the female head of the community), the late Sister Marie Burgess, Sister June Carpenter, the late Sister Minnie Greene, and the late Sister Ruth Nutter; Brother Arnold Hadd (the male head of the community), Brother Alistair Bates, and Brother Wayne Smith. The artists are Janine Antoni, Chen Zhen, Domenico de Clario, Adam Fuss, Mona Hatoum, Sam Samore, Jana Sterbak, Kazumi Tanaka, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Nari Ward.

The project sought to probe conventional notions of gender, work, and spirituality, to redefine the making and experiencing of art, and to challenge the widespread belief that art and life exist in separate realms. Its point of departure and inspiration was the Shakers, people who for over two centuries have stood apart, but not retreated from, dominant cultural practice, and who have lived and worked from an alternative social paradigm at the foundation of which is a belief in the spiritual value of the activities of daily life. It was a unique encounter; each group and each individual traveled a great distance in an effort to understand the other. The space that was created and shared between them through these attempts is as important as the artworks that emerged from the experience. The Japanese word ma connotes this space in between, this interval of fullness and harmony.

Morin first conceived of the project when she was senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. After she left the museum in 1994, she began to focus on the project exclusively. She had always believed that it should take place at Sabbathday Lake, where the only active Shaker community, consisting at the time of seven Believers, lived. But her friend Gerard C. Wertkin, then Director of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and a Shaker specialist, had counseled her not to make a final decision until she had visited each of the Shaker villages, all of which but Sabbathday Lake are now museums only. Visiting all of the villages, Wertkin explained, would help her more clearly see where the project should unfold.

Accompanied by Guerrero, Morin visited Sabbathday Lake for the first time on April 30, 1995, to attend a Sunday Meeting, a traditional Shaker worship service consisting of biblical readings, a homily, and songs. Of her experience, she has written:

What I was to experience on that first visit remains to this day deeply engraved in my memory. Upon our arrival in the Village, Tony and I didn't know where to go. I eventually rang the bell of the brick Dwelling House. A woman in her late sixties came to the door, looked straight at me with a gaze I will never forget, and said with impressive boldness, "I am Sister Frances. You must be France." We both smiled; there was an instant bond between us. I knew then that I had to work in that place and with this community. Sister Frances then shook my hand and directed me to the chapel. I passed through the prayer room with portraits of deceased Shakers on the wall, walked into the chapel, and sat in the second row on the Sisters' side beside a woman who introduced herself as Sister Ruth, a woman in her eighties who seemed both vulnerable yet exceptionally determined. Waiting for the service to begin, I looked outside the large windows at the ordered rows of white buildings, the trees, the barns, the pastures at the Village, where, little did I know at the time, I would spend some of the most important months of my life.

After the Meeting, the Shakers asked Morin to describe the project she envisioned. Morin explained why she believed that a collaboration between the community and a group of artists could be so meaningful for all of the participants. The Shakers suggested that she and Guerrero come back in two weeks to discuss the project further. On May 12, they met with Sister Frances and Brother Arnold. Within fifteen minutes, Sister Frances told them that the community had discussed the proposal at length and had decided that they could not participate. They were a religious community, she explained, and were concerned that living and working with a group of strangers for several months might be too disruptive. Morin asked the Shakers if she and the artists could discuss their concerns and assured them that she would take full responsibility for organizing the project, that they would be involved in all major decisions, and that they would have the opportunity to meet all of the artists before the project began. The Shakers invited Morin and Guerrero to dinner, and they all continued to talk. By the end of the meal, the Shakers had begun to see that they could trust Morin and the artists. They said that they would reconsider their decision as a community. Morin observes, "Before we left, Tony, who is from Arles, promised that one day he would make paella for them. One of the Shakers mischievously replied, 'Even if we decide not to participate in the project, will you come back and prepare this meal?' The following Thursday Sister Frances called Gerry and told him that the community had decided to embark on the project.

Before the commencement of the project, each artist visited the community to present their work. Then, during their month-long summer stays, they lived, worked, shared meals, and worshipped with the Shakers, experiencing Shaker culture and its celebration of the aesthetics of everyday life. A summer day at Sabbathday Lake is a busy, structured one. At 7:30 am, the Great Bell on the Dwelling House is rung to summon all to breakfast; at 8 am, Morning Prayers, which consist of the responsive reading of two Psalms, followed by Bible readings, prayer, silent prayer and the singing of a Shaker song, begins; at 8:30 am, work begins; at 11:30 am, Mid-day Prayers begin; at 12 pm, dinner, the main meal of the day, is served; at 1 pm, work begins again; and at 6 pm, supper is served. Everyday work tasks include feeding sheep, planting vegetables, making repairs, and maintaining and stocking the Shaker Store with herbs, oval boxes, baskets, and other Shaker goods. The community is an industrious group, as each day they celebrate the motto of their founder, Mother Ann Lee: "Hands to work and hearts to God." Physical labor is seen as an apt metaphor for spiritual labor, the daily and often mundane struggle to live by Christ's example. Daily activities are undertaken with this sense of spiritual intentness and presence; each act is understood as an affirmation of their belief in God and their endeavor for union as a community. In this way, the everyday, the modest, and the prosaic is redeemed. And so the fabric of time seems to be woven more densely in this place, as even the transient, the ephemeral, and the laborious tasks that others may view as impediments to the enjoyment of life are graced with patient deliberation.

At the beginning of the summer, the Shakers presented the artists with a list of tasks. Every morning, the artists and Morin tended to individual chores in the barn and in the herb and oval box industry, or they assisted with a group project under the direction of Guerrero, such as restoring the fence in front of the Meeting House and Ministry Shop. In the afternoon, the artists were free to pursue their own activities, artistic or otherwise. Fuss, for example, built a darkroom in the Trustees' Office, and Chen chose to communicate with the Shakers by drawing each of their portraits in pastel, included as part of his work, My Diary in the Shaker Village.

Throughout their stays, the artists followed the ordered existence of the community. They lived adjacent to the Shakers in the Trustees' Office. Breakfast and lunch were shared together in the Dwelling House where the Shakers live, and on Mondays the artists, organizers, and Shakers would come together for dinner. These eating rituals punctuated days filled with work, and they provided the summer with a constant rhythm. So, too, did participation in worship. Artists attended the daily morning prayer, the Sunday service, and Wednesday night prayers as well. On Thursday evenings, everyone came together for a weekly Meeting for Conversation, a nineteenth-century tradition that was revived for the project. These sessions provided an open, honest forum for intense discussions of theology, work, art, and gender.

Without romanticizing the "simplicity" or "purity" of the Shakers' convictions, many of the artists endeavored to appreciate the nature of such an intense religious calling. Artists and Shakers actively, but patiently, sought a space of common ground between them. The distance between Shakers and artists, and between individuals as well, was filled by a spirit of respectful collaboration that pervaded everything from barn chores, communal prayers, and oval box making, to shared meals. There was, however, a shared acknowledgment of how expansive that distance really was. The point was not to make Shakers out of artists, and artists out of Shakers, especially as the participants grappled more and more with definitions of those very roles. The hope was to explore the confluence between spirituality and art in everyday life, without using the language of one to describe the other. As Brother Wayne Smith observed to the artists, "You have art, we have prayer."

The artists drew on their experiences to create works as diverse as sound recordings, oil paintings, photographs, sculptural installations, and videos. These works were exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Portland, Maine, from August 9 to September 21, 1997. Another exhibition of the works was presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston from June 9 to September 20, 1998.