27 November 2023

Planting Utopia

Julia Whitney Barnes’ botanical cyanotypes
fill an airy drying house in Albany


by Kate Mothes

Among the historic buildings of the Shaker Heritage Society at Watervliet in Albany, New York, sits a simple drying house for herbs and seeds. A simple pitched roof tops brick walls that are punctuated by bright yellow doors, and the structure sits adjacent to an expansive garden that is maintained in the tradition of those who first settled in the community in the late 18th century.

The Shakers, a religious sect formed in England around 1747 and reorganized a few decades later in the U.S., were formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Due to their ecstatic dancing during worship, the group took on the name the “Shaking Quakers” or the Shakers. They are recognized for their simple style of communal living, furniture, and technology. They also cultivated, studied, and sold medicinal herbs, composing detailed herbaria containing hundreds of species.

For artist Julia Whitney Barnes, the airy, brick drying building in the gardens at Watervliet provide a unique setting for a project called Planting Utopia, comprising large-scale cyanotypes that incorporate botanicals and designs tied to the history of the site and its residents. A long, horizontal composition installed above the door spans the full 15-foot width of the space and is framed in yellow lacquered wood to match the details of the original trim. The artist suspended bunches of herbs gathered from the garden beneath the horizontal installation, each delicate bundle labeled in Latin with details of how the Shakers used them.

“The Shaker aesthetic is largely known for rejecting any unnecessary ornamentation,” says Whitney Barnes, who is based in Poughkeepsie. “The rare exception is artwork produced during the Era of Manifestations, a spiritual revival that began at the Watervliet South Family in 1837 and spread to other Shaker communities. These spirit drawings represented visions and dreams, and often incorporated both natural and fanciful plants.” Also known as a gift drawings, they are unique to the Shakers and often include botanical details.

“When I first saw the Shaker gift drawings, I felt an immediate kinship with them,” Whitney Barnes says. “They felt both familiar and wondrous.” She recalls her grandmother’s calligraphy and an heirloom quilt made by her great-great-great-grandmother in the 1850s with abstracted tulip designs that parallel the flowers in the historical pieces.

On the exterior of the drying house, four individual compositions inspired by the geometry and vibrancy of gift drawings adhere directly to the brick. Based on cyanotypes, each one is fabricated in vinyl to protect the integrity of the historical structure. “Once I realized the connection that the gift drawings originated at the exact same time as the first cyanotypes were being created, I knew I wanted to find a way to bridge these, as well as incorporate the current Shaker site garden. It’s amazing to think about the predominantly women artists who made the gift drawings, and how living in a community like the Shakers enabled them time for creative pursuits.”

The artist released a book to accompany Planting Utopia, and often makes prints of her botanical-inspired work available on her website. Find more and stay up-to-date with studio news on Instagram.

Photos (except installation) by Sean Hemmerle. All images courtesy of the artist.

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