What constitutes a gift these days? A gift is something given, and then, more than likely, re-given. A gift is a flat plastic card that will lie, unused, in a desk drawer until it expires. A gift is a talent. A GIFT is a “gamete intrafallopian transfer,” an egg-and-sperm cocktail that gets injected into a woman’s fallopian tubes as a fertilization treatment.
Few of these definitions -- Gamete intrafallopian transfer? -- would have made any sense to the Shakers.
And yet, the Shakers had at least as many strange meanings for the word “gift” as we do. A gift might be an intuition; it might be a sense of divine direction; or it might be an ability. An ability mind you, never a talent. Talents are far too showy.
The Shakers engaged in “whirling gifts” and “laughing gifts,” ecstatic events during which believers fell into spinning or guffawing together for hours on end. The gift of “acting drunk with new wine” or “acting the fool” involved collectively mimicking the behavior of a congenial souse or idiot. Elaborate pantomimes mimicked feasting, washing, planting, harvesting, even fighting, which is surprising because the Shakers were pacifists. These directions from the eternal beyond—performed at the behest of visiting spirits—were all deemed to be "gifts." What, then, possessed a member of one Shaker congregation to sink to the ground and writhe limply across the floor in imitation of a human mop pushed to and fro by divine hand? A gift, of course.
As is true the world over where gifts are concerned, some Shakers got more than others. Visionists--so named by the Shakers for their hallucinatory visions and accompanying altered states of mind--possessed the ultimate gift of personal communication with heavenly spirits, chief among them the founder of Shakerism, Mother Ann Lee. Though many of them were just teenage girls, they had great power over the communities in which they lived. A visionist could inspire hope, productivity and religious fervor, but she could also convince elders to punish or expel members she did not like. All in the name of Mother Ann, all because of her "gift."
Visionists were the songwriters, choreographers and artists behind some of the most disturbing, most revelatory and most beautiful artifacts left behind by the Shakers. The best known of these—the “gift drawings”—have an exuberance that is at odds with everything the Shakers believed in. Full of color, fanciful images and poems, about 200 gift drawings survive, the best known of which have been displayed in museums all over the world.
Many of the drawings are made up of complex and highly ordered patterns. Others look more like spiritual maps, intended to chart the path to Zion. A few are so free-form in nature, they appear to have been received directly while in a state of trance.
One of the visionists' favorite subjects was the Tree of Life. Painted in vibrant color, bursting with fruits and flowers, the Tree of Life represented the unspoiled loveliness of the Garden of Eden. There are many versions--each visionist saw the tree differently--and you can find most of them reprinted on coffee mugs, posters, aprons, tea cozies, even carved into useful household objects such as the "Tree of Life trivet" pictured below.
A gift within a gift.