The Tree of Life is one of the most iconic images to come out of Shaker material culture. It was created in 1854 by a sixty-six-year-old sister named Hannah Cohoon, who lived in the Shaker community of Hancock in western Massachusetts. It is one of a multitude of images created during a period in Shaker history known variously today as the New Era, Era of Manifestations, or era of Mother’s Work. This was an extraordinary phase of spiritual vitality that engulfed the entire Shaker world for at least two decades between 1837 and the end of the 1850s.
The artistic representations generated during this period are exceptionally diverse, bound together mainly by their surreal qualities. As a body of work, they stand in puzzling contrast to the general simplicity—even to the point of austerity—of the Shakers’ built environments and material culture. Dominated by a singular abstract figure (the tree) Cohoon’s Tree of Life is hardly typical of the gift drawings, many of which comprise vast assemblages of smaller elaborate objects and elements. But it is by far the most famous; as such it has come to represent this unusual period in Shaker history, as well as Shakerism more generally.
American Communal Societies Quarterly
Available for download on Monday, July 01, 2024