Downtown mural revives relevance of Black Mountain College

Paul Clark

Tim Kerr was teaching a class in Black Mountain last summer when he noticed that nothing in town noted that Black Mountain College used to be nearby.

“I was kind of amazed,” the Houston-based folk artist and muralist said last week. So last week he and a dozen of his students at the School of the Alternative painted a mural depicting some of the college’s notable faculty on the side of a building on Sutton Avenue.

Tim Kerr, left, leads Daniel Meredith, center, Lara Schweller (with her back turned) in painting a mural honoring the legacy of Black Mountain College.

The mural, near the intersection of Richardson Boulevard, celebrates Black Mountain College luminaries such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Gwendolyn Knight and Ruth Aiko Asawa.

The School of the Alternative (, now in its second summer, is happening through May 30 at YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. The school’s approach to experimental education is similar to Black Mountain College’s. Existing from 1933-1957, Black Mountain College was an arts-central experimental college at Blue Ridge Assembly and Lake Eden (now Camp Rockmont) revered in arts history for the caliber of faculty it attracted and the achievements of its students in architecture, literature, the visual arts and other fields.

“We are here because of the alternative education (model) that Black Mountain College brought to this area,” said co-founder Chelsea Ragan, a Black Mountain native who with her husband staged the school’s first sessions last summer.

The two two-week sessions this month offer students classes in political performance art, dream work, Zen meditation, experimental music, architecture and engineering, sociological poetry, wild fermentation and other topics. Class structures vary, depending on the subject matter, with some taught by students themselves.

Tuition covers room and board at the school’s quarters at Blue Ridge Assembly. Instructors work for free, as do the Ragans. The school has about 15 students and 15 faculty this summer, Chelsea Ragan said. Students this summer range in age from 18 to 60, she said.

“My husband and I always felt the need to create accessible alternative education that doesn’t put people into debt,” Ragan said. “Our students include a wide range of people (including some) that have completed their careers but never got to personal interests of their own.”

Kerr hopes the mural will remind Black Mountain residents and visitors of Black Mountain College’s importance to the development of the avant-garde movement and contribution to progressive education. He hopes people will remember the college’s serving as a haven for some of the most brilliant minds fleeing the rise of Nazism in Europe before World War II.

“You hope someone will come to this town and see this mural and they were there (at the college) or their people were,” Kerr said. “Or they may see one of these names and say ‘that’s your uncle,’ ‘that’s your sister.’ That would be pretty cool.”