Hannah Cohoon


was a gifted Shaker artist, but only five drawings from her hand are known to survive. Among these is
The Tree of Life,
which has become emblematic of the Shaker experience in America as the result of its widespread appropriation and popular use during the course of the last fifty years. Unlike many drawings produced by Shaker artists, Cohoon’s work is bold and emphatic, dramatically composed, and colored with thick, opaque paint. Her drawings are dated from 1845 through 1856, duringthe revival period in Shaker history known as the Era of Manifestations or the Era of Mother’s Work, when visionary experiences, or “gifts,” were features of everydaylife in the religious communities. The artist believed that she saw the subjects of her drawings—allegorical trees and a basket of apples—in visions before she carefully planned and executed her work.Cohoon was born in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and in 1817 entered the Shaker Society at Hancock, near the New York border in northwestern Massachusetts.Her two young children accompanied her. Cohoon’s drawings reflect the visual culture of the environment in which she lived before she became a Shaker. Among theapparent influences on her work were popular prints, quilt motifs, and needlework samplers, none of which would have had a place within the spare, communalaesthetic of Shakerism. Cohoon rendered these images in an abstract, stylized manner that invests them with an otherworldly sensibility. Equally important as influenceson her work were the written and oral traditions of the church, the recorded testimonies of the Shaker founder, Mother Ann Lee (c. 1736–1784), and other earlyShaker leaders, and the experience of the revival period itself. Gift drawings share equivalent symbolic imagery with the gift songs and gift messages that were “received by inspiration” during the Era of Mother’s Work.In 1980 the four drawings by Cohoon that were then known were chosen for inclusion in “American Folk Painters of Three Centuries,” an influential exhibition at theWhitney Museum of America Art in New York. Researcher Ruth Wolfe’s essay in the accompanying catalog records what little is known about the artist. In 1823, sixyears after moving to Hancock, Cohoon signed the Church Covenant, signaling her decision to make her home among the Believers for the remainder of her years.Deeply imbued with the faith of the Shakers, she composed wordless “laboring songs,” to accompany the Shaker dance or march in worship. Cohoon died at Hancock at the age of seventy-five.
See also
Quilts; Samplers, Needlework; Shaker Drawings; Shakers; Visionary Art
Lipman, Jean, and Tom Armstrong, eds.
American Folk Painters of Three Centuries.
New York, 1980.Patterson, Daniel W.
Gift Drawing and Gift Song: A Study of Two Forms of Shaker Inspiration.
Sabbathday Lake, Maine, 1983.Promey, Sally M.
Spiritual Spectacles: Vision and Image in MidNineteenth-Century Shakerism.
Bloomington, Ind., 1993