Polly Collins


was still a child when she entered Hancock Shaker Village in northwestern Massachusetts with her family in 1820, but she remained a faithful member of the religiouscommunity until the end of her life. She was an active participant in the spiritual manifestations that were associated with the revival period in Shaker history (c. 1837– 1859), and created at least sixteen watercolor “gift drawings,” bearing dates from 1841 to 1859. Collins was born east of Albany, in Cambridge, New York, a smalltown near the Vermont border.The revival period, which is referred to in the Shaker chronicles as the Era of Mother’s Work or the Era of Manifestations, was characterized by a greater receptivity by the members of the community to visionary experiences (trances, prophetic utterances, spirit communications) than at other times, although these phenomena have been present during much of the history of the United Society of Believers, as the community is more formally called. Collins was a “medium,” or “instrument,” during the Era of Manifestations, receiving and recording many visions and “gifts.”Collins’s gift drawings generally are not as bold and direct in composition or color as those of another Hancock Shaker, Hannah Cohoon (1788–1864), but theyoften incorporate similar arboreal motifs. Cohoon’s drawings are characterized by strong central images, as are some of Collins’s compositions. For several of her drawings, however, Collins constructed a distinctive grid of squares or rectangles, each of which contains stylized figures of trees, flowering plants, and, occasionally,arbors or other objects. The overall composition of these works and their individual elements suggest the design of album quilts, although decorative bedcovers had no place in the spare Shaker aesthetic. Needlework samplers also appear to have had an influence on Collins’s drawings. The Believers sought to live separately from theways of the world, but they nevertheless were influenced by the visual culture of their place and time.Perhaps the most distinctive of Collins’s drawings is
An Emblem of the Heavenly Sphere
(1854), a complex work in which the artist employs carefully ruledhorizontal and vertical lines to form a grid. The outer squares of the grid contain lyrically drawn allegorical figures, including flowering fruit trees with names like “Flower of Eden,” “The Celestial Plum,” “Repen tance,” and “Forgiveness.” In the center of the work, the artist has placed a celestial choir composed of Mother Ann Lee (c.1736–1784), the Shaker founder; other early leaders of the church; Jesus; the apostles and other figures from sacred history; and Christopher Columbus.Following the Era of Manifestations, Collins lived an uneventful life at Hancock, serving for a period of years as caretaker to the young girls of the village’s Westfamily.
See also
Hannah Cohoon; Quilts; Samplers, Needlework; Shaker Drawings; Shakers; Visionary Art
Morin, France, ed.
Heavenly Visions: Shaker Gift Drawings and Gift Songs.
New York, 2001.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