Sharing Benches: Acts of Communalism

Francis Cape sees the use of benches as an important act of communalism common in both historic and contemporary societies.

| January 2014

  • Sharing benches means sharing the same material support; also sitting at the same level. In an act of communalism, leaders or moderators, if present, sit with the others on the benches; they do not address the group from outside.
    Photo by Jordan Richards, Arcadia University Gallery
  • The “Utopian Benches” exhibit on display at the Arcadia University Art Gallery in 2011.
    Photo by Arcadia University Gallery
  • “We Sit Together” by Francis Cape proposes that material culture reflects social structure, and that the bench as shared seating reflects a general sharing of values.
    Cover courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

We Sit Together (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013) by Francis Cape presents twenty-one beautifully reconstructed benches drawn from twelve utopian communities, both secular and religious, active from 1732 to the present. Cape investigates how the structure and values of each community found expression in their benches. This selection from the introduction discusses historic acts of communalism.

Twenty benches are gathered in the middle of a room. Each is built from poplar and finished in the same rubbed linseed oil. No two are the same. This is the sculpture Utopian Benches. I made the sculpture as a way of thinking—and talking—about communalism as both a historic and a contemporary alternative to individualism. The definition of communalism I use here is the community of goods. Broader definitions such as that suggested by Timothy Miller do not make as clear a distinction from materialist individualism. Sharing a bench means sharing the same material support; also sitting at the same level. When gathered in a room for exhibition, the benches are used for public meetings and conversations on subjects chosen by those who have chosen to come. Leaders or moderators, if present, sit with the others on the benches; they do not address the group from outside.

I made the benches using measured drawings taken from original benches that were, for the most part, made for and/or used by communal societies. Each bench is a facsimile of one used and, in some cases, currently in use by a communal society. The originals are in a variety of woods and finishes. I chose to make them all in poplar sourced locally near my studio, as using locally available lumber is what they did. The linseed oil finish is characteristic of early Shaker furniture. My research took me from historic sites and museum villages to contemporary communes, both secular and religious.

The focus of the work is the nineteenth-century American intentional communities, particularly those with a craft tradition, most famously the Shakers, but also the Community of True Inspiration in Amana, the Harmony Society, and the Society of Separatists at Zoar, Ohio. The earliest benches are from Ephrata Cloister, which was established in 1732, and is the oldest American communal society for which we have extant buildings and artifacts, now in the care of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The newest bench was made sometime in the last ten years at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, which is also in southeast Pennsylvania and less than fifty miles from Ephrata.

This newest bench stands in Rose Hall, which is the meetinghouse at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills. It is built from oak, which was likely sourced from the community’s woodlands. Though built in living memory, the name of the individual who made it is already lost; that this could have happened is owed to the community’s dependence on a continuing rotation of short-term coworkers. The story of the bench reflects the structure of the community. At Ephrata Cloister, the Feast Hall bench—which probably also stood in the Saal, the community meeting house, in an upstairs room where they held Love Feasts—will also have been built from local lumber. The name of that maker is lost in time. That the name of neither maker was recorded is characteristic of the anonymity of traditional craft practice. This is not to say that the craftsmen and women were not respected by their peers, but that for craft, as for communalism, it is the contribution rather than the contributor that is celebrated.

The benches, as shared seating, represent community. As examples of craftsmanship, they propose a reconsideration of value. The intentional association of craft with resistance to industrial practice—and in our times to mass consumption—dates to the nineteenth century with William Morris and the origins of the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain. Morris, who is best known for his naturalistic textile and wallpaper designs, also ran a furniture shop whose products followed simple English rural vernacular traditions, in sharp contrast to the opulent output of conventional designers of the day. He was, moreover, an active socialist who spoke regularly to workingmen’s groups and advocated the overthrow of the social and political order of his time: an order that has changed little in the Western world in the ensuing years. He had been a poet before he took up designing for the material world, and he described his dream of a new life in his utopian novel News from Nowhere. Morris and his utopian vision, became the model for the Arts and Crafts community founded at Rose Valley outside Philadelphia (fifty miles from Ephrata Cloister, in the opposite direction from the Camphill Village).

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