Ralph Gardner Jr: Labor Is A Form Of Worship

Jul 14, 2018

It’s typically the objects not the wall text that catch the eye at an art exhibition. But a few words at the start of the Columbia County Historical Society’s new show of Shaker Baskets from the Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon resonated with me.

“Shaker craftsmen were highly skilled and their products were an expression of their word view,” the text reads. “It was the duty of each believer to live purely and strive for perfection in everything they did. Labor was a form of worship.”

It was the last line that really got me. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate that the process is as rewarding as the result. The only thing one can control, in the end, is the quality of one’s own work. Its outcome, its reception is in the hands of others.

The highest state of being, it seems, is to have the privilege of doing something that allows you to live in the moment, that makes time stand still.

I’ve got to admit that, on the face of it, a show of Shaker baskets doesn’t lend itself to jumping up and down with excitement. Nor promise revelations of existential truth. Basket weaving might even be something of a punch line. Or at least a metaphor for radical boredom, like paint drying.

But as soon as you step foot in the historical society’s handsome new Diane Smook|Robert Peduzzi Gallery you’re struck by the beauty and simplicity of the objects. They project control and order in a world that frequently seems spinning out of it.

“Their techniques are a little different,” Kelli Smith, the show’s curator told me. Kelli meant compared to conventional and certainly machine-made baskets. “The way they bind the rim of the basket. They had an attention to detail that you don’t see in a lot of other baskets.”

Kelli, who assembled the show with Jerry Grant, the director of collections and research at the Shaker Museum, said they tried to come up with a representative sample from the hundreds in the museum’s collection.

At its peak in 1867, the Shakers produced 3866 in a single year. They ranged from large utility baskets employed for holding laundry at their wash houses and those used in the fields and orchards to so called “fancy work,” the ones sold in their shops.

For an isolated community the photos of everyday life that accompany the show, and the faces of Shakers as they pause for the camera, display a surprising naturalism and lack of self-consciousness that’s often lacking in the subjects of 19thcentury photographs. It’s almost as if the serenity their work provided shone through their personalities, through their very beings.

As attractive as the show is, alone it might not be worth a trip from afar. But it’s just one aspect of the Columbia County Historical Society’s current season spread across four historic properties. The Society’s Museum and Library in Kinderhook currently boasts three shows in addition to Shaker Baskets.

One of them, called “Supreme Sacrifice,” is about the role of this rural county in WWI. It’s filled with artifacts but perhaps my favorite is a photo of men gathered in front of a chalkboard in the window of the Evening Register Bulletin in Hudson examining the names of the first people to be called up for the draft.

It brings that now distant war back to visceral, local life. “Raymond E. Eberle, of Chatham, first Col. Co. man drawn for selective draft, his number being 285,” it starts from the top. “Benjamin L. Gannon, of Kinderhook, No. 2522, second.”

The historical society properties include the James Vanderpoel House, an elegant brick mansion, also known as the House of History, that’s currently hosting a show of New York portraits. By the way, if you’ve never visited Kinderhook it’s worth going just for the array of well-kept mansions up and down Broad Street, also known as Route 9. They’re living jewels from the town’s 19thcentury heyday.

And if you’re concerned about overdosing on ancient history you can pop into the sprawling 30,000 square foot Jack Shainman contemporary art gallery across the street.

And then there’s two other historical society properties: the 1737 Luykas Van Alen House just south of the village on county route 9H, one of the most authentic examples of early Dutch architecture remaining in the United States. And beside it is the one-room Ichabod Crane Schoolhouse.

So called because Jesse Merwin taught there. He’s the Kinderhook schoolteacher Washington Irving based the character of Ichabod Crane in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The society also hosts a lecture series and produces a historical magazine that’s far more entertaining than you’d guess.

If I have any gripe, and it’s a small one, it’s with the tiny pond in front of the Van Alen House, currently suffering under an algae bloom.

“We’re working on that,” curator Anna Thompson told me. “All the properties take a lot of upkeep.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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