Two afternoons at Black Mountain School
For months, if you've glanced at the blog or Facebook, I've been throwing around info and blurbs about Black Mountain School. It's hard to believe that it was only six months ago that I drove down to Black Mountain, NC to attend a weekend planning retreat with more than a dozen other artists -- the very beginning stages of planning. Prior to that I've relished any opportunity to write about the original Black Mountain College, so it's been both a long time coming and an insanely fast project. While I am neither a practicing artist, nor do I live in North Carolina, my role in planning BMS was a remote one, largely confined to small-scale fundraising efforts and the initial surge of academic background on the original college. In the past six months, a veritable army of artists and organizers have put together a real and astonishing accomplishment: a school.
Situated in a newer lodge on the campus of the original college at Blue Ridge Assembly just outside of Black Mountain, NC, the new BMS piles near five dozen faculty, staff, and students -- almost all of them artists -- into one building. Of course, there's the use of outdoor areas, and much of the basement of the historic Eureka Hall (formerly Robert E Lee Hall), a gigantic wooden building where the original college was particularly centered.
When I arrived on Saturday morning (a little later than planned after having accidentally locked my keys in my car during a coffee stop), I drove up the mountain and pulled into a gravel lot where a work tent had been pitched at the foot of the stairs leading up to a long porch. At least eight or ten students were hanging out in rocking chairs or seated on the floor, chatting and planning the afternoon. Inside, two main rooms -- a common room and a dining area -- were buzzing with activity. A few tables had been set up with collage materials and cassette tapes, and small prints from a recent workshop had been strung up on the walls. There was a library in the corner near the fire place, and numerous sketchbooks and notepads strewn all over with taped-on declarations of WRITE IN ME! -- many were already full.
Black Mountain School had only been in session for one week. I was there the day after their first free day, where they had taken time to let loose or regroup, whichever came first. I arrived in time for lunch, and the kitchen was clanging and humming with activity as various components of the meal were prepared -- a never ending cycle of cooking and clearing throughout the day for nearly sixty people. After a week it seemed they had settled into a routine and as long as everyone knew where they were supposed to be throughout the day, it ran smoothly.
Part of what made the original college function was its incorporation of a labor program, in some cases to offset tuition costs for students who couldn't afford it, but also as a practical way to sustain itself. It cost less to run a small farm on the property eventually than to try to figure out catering services or purchase food. But it was also in founder John Rice's educational philosophy that hands-on work made for more well-rounded, democratic people, and that was his entire mission: education through the arts to produce people who were prepared to enter the world when they left.
BMS functions like a microcosm of that philosophy. Because the school runs for a month as opposed to an entire school year, the "semesters" become two-week stretches, and everything that comes with running the project changes proportionately. But that doesn't mean that a hell of a lot of vegetables aren't needed to feed all of those people every day. So starting months ago, a community garden plot was taken out in Black Mountain, and a relationship was forged with local Warren Wilson College's to utilize their gardens as the school year wound down. Every morning there are assigned tasks like helping in the kitchen, working to the garden, cleaning around the lodge, and so on. And in the afternoon there are classes.
Even in the two days that I was there, classes ranged from filmmaker Bill Daniel's "Junk Camera Theory and Application" to "Lose Your Mind and Come To Your Senses," a sensory exploration that would culminate in a participatory event-happening-performance. There was a Giant Loom workshop by San Francisco-based textile artist Ricki Dwyer, and in the evening there was a wonderful talk by Wendy Woon, the education director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Victor D'Amico, the education director at the time of the original college, who came to visit at that time.
The range of personalities, backgrounds, and projects is diverse -- there are a range of ages, although most students were in their 20s and a lot of staff and faculty were in their 30s or older. Many had connections to New York, and some had connections to the original college. A composer who lives in San Francisco and spent several years working with Lou Harrison felt that his artistic education had made some sort of full circle. This made for a really exciting combination of experience and connections; some people knew other people already, while others were meeting everyone for the first time. Upon joining in, however temporarily, I was struck by the immediate community that forms in these situations, where a mixed bag of strangers and friends are all put together -- awkwardly at first -- in a very close living and learning situation, and they get to know one another fast.
The school doesn't run long enough for rifts or cliques to really cement themselves, and everything is done in such a small geographic area that it's impossible to not see just about everyone every few hours. The beauty of its rural location is that with a large percentage of attendees coming from quite far away, and from urban areas like New York, people can simply relax and shed any city posturing. Here, everyone is doing something interesting, or coincidentally knows other people you know (the coincidences abound so frequently, it's almost not even surprising after a while), and the line between faculty and student is effectively blurred.
Some classes feel very class-like with a teacher and a group of students around them. But others are student-led, in practice or in discussion, and the balance is refreshing. There are set classes on the schedule, but there are constant opportunities for short workshops or lessons such as making kimchi, taking hikes on the mountain, or learning about medicinal herbs. Sometimes schedules conflict; the days are so full that difficult choices need to be made about which classes one can attend. "Thinking Televisual" or "Conceptual Art and Espionage?"
There is rightly a profound overall fascination with how this has come together, especially in light of its predecessor, and that it seems to have, even in its first week, exceeded almost everyone's expectations. Everyone has a role, from tending the garden to managing staff meetings, and as any preliminary endeavor is, it has its clunky moments and its schedule conflicts. But overall it is a phenomenal achievement on everyone's part, but especially with the guidance of artists Chelsea Ragan and Adam Void, whose ultimate vision it was to start the new school here in the first place. Many have dreamed of doing it, and some have tried, but perhaps this is the moment when the romanticism of the pre-Beatnik liberal arts college and the current political and economic climate that today's young artists face join up to create something actually beneficial. There is power in past history, and learning from the triumphs and mistakes of those who did something similar before (especially in the same exact location) but BMS and its participants (of which I am one, yet on a much smaller scale than most) deserve a pat on their collective backs for managing to be relevant, timely, and above all, daring.