To the Shakers, light was everything: fuel to the body, mind, and spirit. Borrowed Light: Barbara Ernst Prey, on view at Hancock Shaker Village May 26–November 11, 2019, captures this dynamic essence in the form of ten large-scale watercolors, ranging in size from 28 x 40 inches to 40 x 60 inches. Each work is imbued with “borrowed light” — a term adopted by the Shakers to describe their architectural technique of incorporating windows and skylights into interior walls. The result is both pragmatic and sublime.
The Shakers designed their built environment to let light in, as found in the twenty buildings on the campus of Hancock Shaker Village. Artist Barbara Ernst Prey (American, b. 1957) spent many days during the fall and winter of 2018–19 immersed in these buildings, as well as in the material culture and landscape of the Village. Carefully observing luminescence, she sketched boxes, garments, tools, and domestic objects as angular refractions of light migrated slowly across interior and exterior scenes. An astonishing palette of color emerged under her acute painterly gaze: violet and emerald awash in the Laundry and Machine Shop; indigo and gold in the Round Stone Barn; slate and amber in the Sisters’ Dairy & Weave Shop.
Borrowed Light offers an opportunity to see Hancock Shaker Village in a new way, exploring the Shakers through a contemporary lens. It is part of a rigorous changing exhibition program at the Village, following on the heels of the contemporary exhibitions Making, Then and Now with works by Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer, and others and Altered Visions with works by Abelardo Morell, Marko Remec, and Henry Klimowicz.
The exquisitely beautiful works in Borrowed Light are unexpectedly big and bold, a deliberate approach by the artist in her exploration of connecting to the universe in a larger and more meaningful way. The exhibition lends new insight into the visual and haptic experience of sacred design, featuring objects and spaces enlivened by luminosity. Such light is expressed in intimate paintings such as Channeled Light (watercolor and drybrush on paper, 2019) — a wash basin and bucket are bathed in geometric-patterned light cast from a window.
Similarly intimate is Spindles (watercolor on paper, 2019), with its rows of colorful spools of thread resting on simple wooden shelves, casting long shadows on the white wall behind them. “My paintings are based on abstract shapes, so there are multiple narratives within the painting,” Prey said. “If you think about it, that space is a microcosm of Shaker life: they raised the crops and animals to make the fiber, grew the plants to make the dyes, spun the thread, wove the textile, sewed the jacket, and later washed the jacket, all using tools that were handmade — down to the smallest hand-carved spool of thread,” she explained. Intrigued by the Shakers’ concept of equality between men and women, she also has a particular interest in women’s work, the subject of both Channeled Light and Spindles. The simplicity of Shaker design, pared down to the essentials, is a recurring theme in the exhibition.
But the light is also vast, as in Shaker Barn (watercolor and drybrush on paper, 2019). The Village’s iconic Round Stone Barn stands sentinel at the center of a winter landscape, anchored by a dramatic cloudy sky and shadows of tree branches in the foreground.
“When Barbara and I discussed the idea of a series of paintings of the Shaker buildings at Hancock, and then she showed me paintings she had made of quiet moments in houses of worship, I knew she would capture the ethereal quality of this former Shaker settlement like no other artist,” said Jennifer Trainer, director of Hancock Shaker Village. “Her ability to capture light, and give tangible essence to the spirit of an environment, took my breath away.”
“I’ve always been drawn to the simplicity of Shaker design,” said Prey. “I’m also drawn to the handmade, which is something I equate with the Shakers.” A 1979 graduate of Williams College, Prey said it was during her time as a student that she was introduced to the Shakers. She felt an immediate connection to the use of color in Shaker art, furniture, and everyday objects. That connection became even stronger after she earned a degree in from Harvard Divinity School in 1986, where her studies led her to examine existential questions of “who we are, where we’re going, why we’re here, and what’s important — what really matters. I think this is reflected in much of my work,” she said. “Borrowed Light is influenced by Shaker design, spirit, and sense of community — we’re all connected through community.”
Prey deliberately chose watercolor as her medium for all ten paintings in the exhibition, explaining that watercolor lends a transparency that, in the context of this series, is akin to a kind of spiritual transparency. “When I’m looking at architecture, essentially, I’m looking at light itself. In this way, all light is borrowed light,” she said.