One man's search for vestiges of Black Mountain College

J.P. Kennedy
Special to The Black Mountain News

My favorite poem is "The Black Mountain Blues" by Black Mountain College poet John Wieners. There's a good line in it: "I want to hear husbands and wives throw ink again." The craft of writing is slow and focused on minutiae. But throwing ink? That sounds like passion, daring, and messiness.

The Western North Carolina energy vortex is located at the bottom of my property. There's a New Age religious retreat across my creek, because of that vortex. Our band was practicing one Saturday afternoon and a man picked his way across the creek and headed up our grassy yard. He asked if we could keep it down because a couple was getting married.

Cinnamon, my wife, asked him what they do at the retreat. "We hold ceremonies," the man answered. "We have sweat lodges. Next time we have a sweat lodge you should join us." He didn't ask me.

It makes sense that the energy vortex is in the bottom of my yard, because across from the retreat is the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. In 1933, Black Mountain College was founded at the assembly, before moving to its Lake Eden campus in 1941. The most influential artists of the 20th century were drawn to this valley. During the college's 24 years, John Cage re-invented music and performance art, Merce Cunningham re-invented dance, Buckminster Fuller moved architecture forward and painters like Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline searched for the next wave.

I've been interested in Black Mountain College since I arrived in 2002. On Friday I started my investigation, collected my book "Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art," passed the religious retreat and headed up through the assembly land. It was a beautiful spring day and the dogwoods were in full flower. I met Danielle Tocaben of the YMCA, who shared their book "Eureka! A Century of YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly," which has two pages dedicated to the history of the college. I asked if they had discovered any canvases hidden in attic rooms – but they had not. Then I walked to Eureka Hall, the massive white Southern Gothic building with the eight pillars and deep porch.

I looked through the books and examined the black-and-white photos of the famous artists, teachers, and students dancing on this porch. Josef Albers, the first director of the college, taught drawing on this porch. I snapped a selfie and glanced across the valley to the scenic Black Mountain Range, the ridgeline and peeks lost in clouds. Then I walked around the building. It was under renovation, so I couldn't go inside. I peered into the darkened windows and imagined the students working on looms with Annie Albers, wife of Josef Albers. I pictured the performances, the strange futuristic costumes of the "Spectodrama" and "The Danse Macabre," directed and designed by Xanti Schawainsky, precursors to the Happenings of John Cage.

Then I sat and reread "The Black Mountain Blues." I was looking for more than the location of Black Mountain College, for the lingering magic too.

"The spirit is still very much alive, even though the college has come and gone," Christina Ruiz, director of the Swannanoa Valley Museum, explained. "It was only around for 24 years, but it still informs artists working today."

The Swannanoa Valley Museum has a central display about the college. It not only shows its artistic influence but also highlights the organization's being at the forefront of desegregation in the area. Next to the display, a stand holds up a blanket made by college students. I'm a little dubious because it looks like a regular knit blanket. But I'm on this search for any clues, so I take a photo.

"I didn't know too much about the college until I started working at the museum," Ruiz said. "It still influences artists here today. You need a community of artists, not an isolated place. It's great that so many people here are still artists."

Ruiz's husband is Zachary Cooper, an electronic music artist who performs under the name Kuxxan SUUM. On March 4, he took part in (Re)Happenings, an event sponsored by the Black Mountain College Museum and the Media Arts Project at the Lake Eden campus. The annual (Re)Happenings are held to remember the first Happenings at Black Mountain College and highlight current performance artists. On exactly the 43rd minute of each hour, Cooper used a solar-powered sound system to play his music across Lake Eden. His music is atmospheric and ambient, some based on bass and drums; other compositions are lush and rich layers of found and manipulated music. His sound has been described as "plunder-phonics."

"John Cage taught at the summer sessions," Cooper told me recently, sitting in his small living room on Laurel Avenue, just north of Lake Tomahawk. "He's super-influential to me. He said to let go of preferences. He favors letting a piece happen, rather than composing. This is very hard for musicians in the West. He encourages you to let go and let music be your guide."

Sitting with him, I noticed that Cooper had recently cut his finger and had has a large white bandage. He held it up in the air as he manipulated a musical composition on his computer. It was fun to be in this space and listen to him chat about how the Black Mountain area has drawn artists. Cooper said there's supposed to be huge community of old hippie synth heads in these mountains who hang out and play classic and older synthesizers.

I headed back home, challenged and contemplative. Having the legacy of Black Mountain College in this valley creates more questions than it answers. Why is art so important to me? Why am I so interested in the college?