Painter brings sharp eye for light, life to Pittsfield’s Hancock Shaker Village

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By Cate McQuaid, Globe CorrespondentAugust 28, 2019

Channelled Light, 2019, Watercolor and drybrush on paper, 40 x 60 inches

PITTSFIELD — Watercolors capture light like no other medium, so it’s easy for a skilled artist to paint something shimmery that goes down like penny candy — brief, sweet, and forgettable.

Barbara Ernst Prey has deeper concerns. In 2017, she painted a monumental image of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s new wing. “Borrowed Light,” her exhibition now at Hancock Shaker Village, spotlights the work, design principles, and spirituality of the Shakers.

The religious sect settled in the Berkshires in 1780, building a community based on racial and gender equality, sustainability, and pacifism. They expressed their ideals in spare, harmonious designs. The architecture at this living history museum includes a round stone barn, home to the community’s economical systems for farm work such as milking cows. In “Wood Work,” Prey depicts the barn’s hub with the same scrupulous attention to structure, texture, and interior light that she employed at Mass MoCA.

Her attention to windows in this show recalls Vermeer. These paintings are quietly luminous and anchored in the everyday. “Spindles” captures the late afternoon splash of light from a window onto shelves full of yarn — ocher, crimson, indigo, spooled and in hanks. They glow and throw honeyed shadows.

In pieces such as “Spindles” and “Channeled Light,” in which slanting sunlight pours through a window onto a bucket and wash basin, the artist nods to Shaker women’s work. Prey’s composition, like Shaker designs, finds grace in ordinary tasks. The light, cut by diagonal shadows, draws the eye to the basin as if it were a fount. The wall behind it, worn and discolored, has a scruffy incandescence. Light and color were intrinsic to the Shakers’ expression of the sacred.

You can stroll around Hancock Shaker Village to see the sites Prey has painted. At the hour I visited, sunlight did not bathe the yarn shelves. I might not have even noticed them. But it’s a painter’s job to notice, and to draw out the nuance and light in what the rest of us ignore. Prey has that eye and that hand, and like the Shakers, what she makes touches the divine and has staying power.

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