Blondie, MassMoCA, the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, Shaker Museums, Dogs, and the Impossibility of Failure – Part 2

Detail from a hand quilted replica of a quilt made by Susan B. Anthony at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Musuem.

(If you have not read “Part 1,” and want to, please just scroll back to the post immediately prior to this one.)

We left off on the last post with my husband, Bill, and I out in Western Massachusetts having been to a Blondie concert, MassMoCA and the Museum of Dog.  I’ve saved the historical sites for this part of the story.

As many of you know, I have been involved at some level with the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community for quite a few years.  I have volunteered on work days, taught rug hooking, and demonstrated the craft for Open Farm Day and Harvest Festival there.  I have unabashedly fallen in love with the place, so aptly known as “Chosen Land” to the Shakers, and with the people there.  Along with a truly dedicated staff and team of volunteers, for whom the work is clearly deeply meaningful, there are the living Shakers themselves, Brother Arnold and Sister June.  For them, Sabbathday Lake is home, and because of them, it is a sacred place that can not be, and I do not believe will ever be, considered wholly a museum.

In spite of my involvement with Sabbathday Lake and my interest in Shaker history, I had never been to any of the Shaker museums that are just a day’s drive or less from home.  It was at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, in Adams, that the very kind and capable staff recommended a visit to the Hancock Shaker Village, only about thirty minutes from there.  But first, let’s talk about the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum.

The Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum is extremely well done in every possible way.  I would highly recommend you click on the link and thoroughly explore their website and then make plans to visit.  Upon entering the gift shop, where you must purchase your tickets before going in to the homestead, you will be greeted by knowledgeable and friendly staff members who have a clear enthusiasm for the museum and its history.  You will have the choice of having a docent give you a guided tour, using an electronic audio/visual tour device, or simply going through the home in a self guided way, reading the plentiful and detailed exhibit descriptions in every room.  My husband chose the A/V tour and I chose to just walk through the museum on my own.

This museum is so professionally and engagingly arranged and annotated that I was taking mental notes on how this example might inform decisions for our own historical society back home.  Every aspect of Susan B. Anthony’s remarkable life is covered, from her family of origin, to her early life and career as a teacher, to her work in the temperance, abolitionist, and of course, women’s’ suffrage movement.  All of this history and context comes very much alive with the extraordinary collection of artifacts, documents, and ephemera belonging to her and/or her life story.  I think my favorite artifact in the museum (a photo is in the slide show below) is the plaster cast made of her clasping hands with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  I felt goosebumps as I looked at this incredible object.  And, being a fiber/textile geek, I was also very interested in the completely hand-quilted replica of a quilt that Susan had made as a young person.  Additionally, there are antique woven coverlets, linens, dresses, and the tools of carding and spinning in the home.  It is beyond the scope of this post to tell the entire story, but again, the museum website is extremely thorough, much like the museum, so click on over to that for so much more information, including on the restoration of the home itself.

Susan B. Anthony died in 1906, fourteen years before women were finally given the vote in the United States.  It is unfortunate that she did not live to see the final fulfillment of that dream, but she left behind millions of grateful women, including those of us who were not yet born.  My grandmother was three years old in 1906 and seventeen years old before women had the vote.  I have thought about that often, that my own grandmother was born in a time when she might never have expected to vote.  It means that we have not had this privilege in America for very long.  Let us never fail to exercise it.

Susan B. Anthony may have been certain that eventually her work would win the day, even if she wouldn’t live to see it. She is quoted as saying, “Failure is impossible.”  The gift shop at her birthplace has silver toned bracelets with these words in them, and I couldn’t leave without one.

Here are the photos I took, with permission, which do not begin to do justice to the museum.

 

We took the staff at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum at their word and went, the next day, Sunday, to the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.   Here are excerpts of the introduction on their website:

“Hancock Shaker Village began in the late 1780s, when nearly 100 Believers consolidated a community on land donated by local farmers who had converted to the Shaker movement. By the 1830s, with a great many more conversions and additional land acquisitions, the Shaker community peaked in population with more than 300 Believers and more than 3,000 acres……Eventually, forces outside the community, including the industrial revolution and the shifting of America from a rural to an urban society, worked against their continued growth and stability. By the early 1900s, with dwindling converts, the Shaker population at Hancock declined to about 50 Believers, most of them Sisters and orphan girls who had been adopted by the community, and only a few adult Brethren……Many outlying acres of land were sold off, and buildings were razed during the final decades of the Hancock community. In 1959, when the Shakers could no longer maintain their City of Peace, they sold the remaining property to a local group committed to preserving the Shaker heritage. The utopian village known as Hancock Shaker Village continues its life today as a history museum with 20 authentic buildings, a working farm and significant collections of Shaker furniture and artifacts.”

I have to objectively say that this is an absolutely lovely and beautifully curated museum village of over twenty historic buildings and thousands of Shaker artifacts, not to mention the extensive gardens, extremely knowledgeable and personable docents, and an onsite visitors’ and educational center.  It is also a breathtaking venue for weddings and events.  I say “objectively” because I have to remove the part of myself that compares it to Sabbathday Lake.  This is not a fair comparison and should not be made.  Sabbathday Lake is literally the only Shaker location on Earth that is an active Shaker community with a working farm, shops, gardens, and livestock that are not strictly for educational purposes, but are actually the continuing business in support of the living Shakers who have been conducting their spiritual and working lives there since 1783.   Sabbathday Lake is the only place on Earth where you can attend an actual Shaker worship service.  No Shaker museum in the country should be compared to this, because their missions are different.  The other museums are doing critically important work in preserving and honoring the memory of the Shakers who no longer inhabit those locations and educating the public about Shaker life.

Having said that (and then I’ll leave this point alone, I promise), that part-of-me-that-was-comparing-and-should-not-have-been felt a profound sadness at Hancock.  I left there, after having a truly wonderful visit, more committed than ever to my volunteer work at Sabbathday Lake with a renewed sense of just how precious that community is, how rare, how indescribably valuable, and how humbled I am by my luck to have it right here in my own backyard in Maine.

OK, onward.  Hancock Shaker Village is a must see on your trip through the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts.  It is possible to spend an entire day, maybe more, there going through each building, taking advantage of the tours and demonstrations that are offered, having a bite to eat in a remarkable fresh food cafe on site, and shopping the gift shop (where, incidentally, they sell products still made at Sabbathday Lake, as does the Mount Lebanon historic site which we will talk about in a bit).  It was so much fun to do the right kind of comparing when we saw the Hancock dwelling house, the laundry room, the dining area, the meeting house and seeing how they were similar and yet different to these same spaces at Sabbathday Lake.  Bill teaches soap making in the laundry room at Sabbathday Lake and was having a great time in its companion space at Hancock.

Across the street from the main village there is a path back to the reservoir and also leading to the Shaker cemetery, which characteristically has just a single stone representing all who are buried there.  The gate was open to the actual burying ground, but out of reverence we remained outside the gate.  It is a beautiful and peaceful place to visit and to remember the bustling Christian community that once existed there.

Here are a few pictures of Hancock Shaker Village, including pics of its iconic stone round barn.  As before, I took a lot of fiber/textile related photographs.  Notice also the beautiful lunch I had in the cafe there.

 

Finally, before heading for home, we went over the state line in to Mount Lebanon, New York to visit the Mount Lebanon Shaker Historic Site.   Unfortunately, I did not take many pictures there, and, in any case, I would encourage you to also explore their website.   Here is an excerpt from the history on the website:

“The Shakers at Mount Lebanon led the largest and most successful utopian communal society in America for 160 years, from 1787 to 1947.

From this central community developed the Shakers’ ideals of equality of labor, gender, and race, as well as communal property, freedom, and pacifism. From Mount Lebanon also grew the now famous Shaker aesthetic of simplicity, expressed in their objects, furniture, buildings, and village planning.

With over 6,000 acres and 100 buildings, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village was a driving force in the agricultural, industrial, commercial, and institutional activities of its day. The Village was divided into smaller “Family” groups (Church, Second, Center, North, East, South, and so on.), each with its own leadership, members, and commercial activities. As the Shaker community declined in population in the early 20th century, the site was gradually sold to various private owners, including the Darrow School, which still inhabits Mount Lebanon’s Church and Center Families, and the Abode of the Message which inhabits the South Family’s buildings.

Mount Lebanon was named a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and was recognized by the World Monuments Fund in both 2004 and 2006 as one of the 100 most significant endangered historic sites in the world.

The North Family today houses the museum and consists of 11 buildings on 91 acres. The iconic North Family Great Stone Barn – measuring 50’ wide, four stories high, and nearly 200’ long, was a testament to the ingenuity, faith, and perseverance of the Shakers. In September 1972 the barn was totally gutted by a catastrophic fire, leaving only its four massive masonry walls standing.”

I will say that those four masonry walls, still standing, are jaw dropping.  There is an effort underway to restore that structure.

We were met in the visitors’ building by a friendly docent who again had great depth of knowledge about the history there.  We did not have much time to explore the site because it was already mid afternoon and we had a five hour drive ahead of us to get home.  I would very much like to go back there to walk the grounds.  It’s important to note that much of what was the village is now occupied by a private school, so this site is not as intact as Hancock appears to be.  Nonetheless, this is a very worthwhile destination.  I was struck by this sign when you walk in to the visitors’ center/gift shop.

This sign affirms what many don’t realize, that the Shakers were not shut out from the world, but rather traveling widely to conduct their business.  Nor did they spurn technology.  In fact, the Shakers were extremely inventive and created new ways of making their work more efficient.  Hancock Shaker Village’s website addresses the truths and legends regarding Shaker inventiveness:

What did the Shakers invent?
The Shakers were inventive people, embracing and often improving upon technology. There are many myths about Shaker inventions. Some are exaggerated truths; others are fiction. Because the Shakers, as a show of humility, often did not patent their inventions and improvements, it is difficult to say how many things they invented.Current scholarship indicates that the Shakers most likely invented the flat broom. They were one of the first to put garden seeds in printed paper packets for sale. They may have invented an early (but perhaps not the first) version of a circular saw. Authentication of many other Shaker inventions or improvements on existing technologies and items is debated and discussed to this day.”

The most observant among you may be asking, “So what about the other bracelet from Part 1?  Where did that come from?”

On Sunday morning, before we left Adams, we went to a funky little cafe on its main street called the Coffee Liberation Front.   I had a delicious fresh quiche for breakfast with equally great coffee.  Bill had a rainbow striped “unicorn bagel.”

It turned out that one of the owners makes imaginative beaded jewelry, much of it with nods to different meanings and energies.  Whether you believe in New Age concepts or not, her work is lovely.  I chose a bracelet with “air” charms on it – a hummingbird, wings, feathers, a butterfly  -things related to flight.  I think I was drawn to it because, in both my life and my work, I am seeking as much freedom as I can create for myself.  It, along with the “Failure is impossible” bracelet from the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum are happy reminders of both an enjoyable weekend away and my desired life direction.

I hope you have enjoyed these two posts highlighting our weekend away and hope even more you will visit some of the places I’ve described.  If you have traveled to any of these places as well, I’d love to hear your impressions about them in the comments.  If you have interest in Shaker life, I would very much encourage you to visit the Sabbathday Lake community in New Gloucester, Maine, just about half an hour south of the Parris House.   There is truly inspiration everywhere.

 

 

 

 

Blondie, MassMoCA, the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, Shaker Museums, Dogs, and the Impossibility of Failure – Part 1

These get explained at the end of Part 2.

Last weekend my husband, Bill, and I took a mini vacation trip out to Western Massachusetts.  The primary reason was that we had tickets to see Blondie at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA), but also, we just really needed to get away.  We secured a cute, super retro (authentically; this was not a hipster re-creation), goin’-to-grandma’s style apartment through Airbnb for the weekend, which turned out to be perfect.  It was in a working class neighborhood of Adams, within sight of the old textile mill where it is probable the building’s original residents, in the 19th century, worked.  There was a huge Catholic church, convent, and school next door, clearly built by Polish immigrants.  This in itself was a small scale immersion in the history of the place and I spent some time online researching the town, its industrial history, and even the streets and buildings that surrounded us.

This trip was a three day, non-stop inspiration fest.  Let’s start with Debbie Harry of Blondie. She is 73 years old.  Her voice is different now, but it is still strong, and her energy level onstage is astonishing.  I went to this concert in large part because I wanted to get away for a weekend and because my husband really loves Blondie and a whole selection of other 80s era music I thought I’d prefer never to hear again.  As it turns out, I truly loved this concert and discovered that Blondie is making new music that I like infinitely better than the old hits.  It didn’t hurt that Debbie Harry came on to the stage wearing a jacket with neon-reflective multicolored honeybees all over it and has recently released an album called “Pollinator.”  The back of the jacket was emblazoned with a…well…blunt message about keeping planet Earth life-sustaining, which I also appreciated.

Debbie Harry and Blondie performing at MassMoCA, August 3rd, 2018

Inspirational messages taken from this experience?

  • Age is a number.  Aside from things beyond your control (truly random illness, accident, and the usual raw deals some people are handed health-wise), decisions you make today may well determine whether you’re literally or metaphorically rocking on stage at 73 or rocking in a chair unable to do much else.
  • Keep working.  Change.  Grow.  “Pollinator” is a great new album that doesn’t sound like previous work.  Debbie Harry and the band are not motoring around a golf course in Florida nor are they only playing the same familiar songs many of their fans probably came to hear.  I hope the work I’m doing even two years from now looks very little like what I’ve been doing for the past five, let alone in twenty years’ time.
  • Wear bright colors at least some of the time, whether you’re 23 or 73.

The next day, we went to MassMoCA.  We had been there about a month before but had been pressed for time and unable to see a lot of the exhibits.  So we went back with a whole day to spend in the museum.  This really was an immersion in every possible sensory exposure to contemporary art.  To be completely honest, I have not always been a fan of contemporary art, but I am coming to realize that I was probably just never looking in the right places.  MassMoCA is a fully engaging  museum of sometimes immediately resonant, sometimes baffling, sometimes repulsive works.  Very little of it left me feeling nothing, although there was a bit of that too.  If anything, though, those pieces – the ones that left me with nothing – were a lesson in the variety of human nature.  To someone, somewhere, they spoke volumes.  One of the exhibits that particularly fascinated Bill fell in to the realm of performance art.  It’s called the Cold Hole.  When unoccupied, it is just a large viewing window looking in to a chamber filled with snow, ice, and a square cutout with a ladder in it leading to frigid cold water.  Anyone who’s done a polar dip for charity in New England knows what it would feel like to jump in to the Cold Hole.  On the day we were there we were lucky to see someone actually jump in.  This act can be done by a museum go-er through special arrangement or by a performance artist, I believe.  I am not 100% sure, but I think on this day we saw a performance artist.

I could write an entire post on what I felt watching this woman as she approached the hole (for which I have no pictures), as she stood over it for quite some time preparing herself for the shock of the water, in that brief moment of free fall in, and as she pulled herself out and walked toward the viewing window.  Always one to create life metaphors, I had many.  I will let you draw your own.  As it is, this post on the weekend overall is going to have to be split in to two for time and length considerations.

The word that kept coming to me as I viewed the art at MassMoCA was “brave.”  As I looked at some of the work, or in some cases, interacted with it, I realized that these artists are incredibly courageous.  Even the work I couldn’t connect with, or, I’m acutely embarrassed to admit struck me as “I could make that…”  (a thought and phrase I abhor, but there I was having it myself), was nonetheless bold.  How many of us would have the courage to make a career of creating objects, sounds, or experiences for others to view that were intensely personal, time consuming, financially risky, and open to amateurs like me gut reacting with, “I could make that…?”  The truth is, I could not “make that.”  I can make what I can make, but not that.  Only that piece’s creator has that ability and honor.  I reacted to most of the art with deep astonishment, appreciation, and some kind of connection, but it doesn’t matter how I – one person – reacted to any of it.  The incredible, head exploding thing to me was the brave vulnerability of the artists, of all kinds, in putting their work out in to the world, saying what they had to say, and accepting both praise and criticism as part of the deal.  The “Mass” in MassMoCA of course stands for “Massachusetts,” but I could not help thinking of it also in terms of the masses of people who visit every year.  It’s a lot of exposure.  These artists should be wearing capes and tights.

These next images are unedited, taken with my cell phone in the museum.  Unfortunately, I can not take the hours today to edit each one of them, but at some point may go back and improve this image set.

 

I would be remiss if I did not mention the coffee shop on the premises, Tunnel City Coffee.  Bill and I went off our diets a little bit, but the scale told me on Monday that no harm was done.  We did split the cookie and the biscotti in to two pieces and shared them.

Delicious pastries and cookies at Tunnel City Coffee, North Adams, MA on the campus of MassMoCA

Inspirational messages taken from this experience?

  • Good coffee is always worth the extra money.
  • Eat the pastry occasionally, preferably with someone dear to you.
  • When you create, do it for you.  Not for the critics.  Not for the fans.  Not for that person who thinks, “I could make that.” For you.
  • Making art is inherently scary sometimes.  Be brave.  You might just find your work in front of millions of people some day.
  • Those last two things may well feel like jumping in to a cold hole.
  • You may often want to give up.  Do not, because at some point someone is going to stand in front of your work with their minds and hearts on fire taking it all in.

So what do you do with a little time to kill in North Adams after you’ve spent the day at MassMoCA?  You go to the Museum of Dog.   This is a little museum that’s only been open for four months.  You can tell that they are still putting it all together, but if a museum has a Rough Collie display like this, I’m happy.  Our Collie, Wyeth, would have been so proud.  We’re definitely taking him back there some day.

Collie display at the Museum of Dog, North Adams, MA.

Inspirational message taken from this experience?

  • Have a dog.
  • Go to the Museum of Dog as they develop and grow.
  • If there’s something you really love, share it with the world.

So, that was Friday night and part of Saturday in Adams and North Adams, Massachusetts.  The next blog post will be about how we spent another part of Saturday and then Sunday at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, the Hancock Shaker Village and Museum, and the Mount Lebanon Shaker Historic Site.  Look for that one later this week or weekend.

In the meantime, be inspired, wherever you find yourself.