One man's search for vestiges of Black Mountain College

J.P. Kennedy
Special to The Black Mountain News

May is my favorite month, vibrant green crawling up the mountains as the days grow longer and warmer. I feel a change too, because of this quest for Black Mountain College.

I read autobiographies of artists. I watch documentaries on artists. I think a lot about art. It feels harder at the end of the day when I have done nothing significant. My wife asked me when we were first dating: "What have you done to advance the cause of 'cool' today?" Wish I could say this was purely an inspirational journey, but I want more. There is a creeping obsession about my interest.

I drive down Interstate 40 and visit the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center at 56 Broadway St. in Asheville. It's a storefront nestled between a printing shop and antique boutiques. Founded in 1993, it maintains awareness of the historical college by showing exhibits and holding events to memorialize the work.

Alice Sebrell, the program director,walks with me around the block to the narrow alleyway called Carolina Lane, to the museum's storage facility. I ask her why the interest in Black Mountain College seems to be increasing.

"It was a democracy," Sebrell explains. "It was very, very experimental. It allowed students to direct their own education. It empowered them. It treated them like adults, to succeed or fall on their own."

Inside an open basement space, members of Black Mountain College Museum and others carefully pack up furniture, photographs, pottery, paintings, and textiles for a large Black Mountain College retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. A loom lies on a central table. People treat it so reverently that I assume it is the loom of Annie Albers, the textile artist who was married to Josef Albers and lived at Black Mountain College between 1933 and 1949.

I'm searching for secrets and hidden treasures, but most of the artwork is already packed up or being prepared to be packed.

On the way back to the museum I ask Sebrell which is her favorite artist.

"It's like the X-Men," I say. "They all have their super powers, and you get to pick your favorite one."

"I couldn't choose," Sebrell answers. "I know some of these artists."

"I like Ray Johnson," I tell her. "His collages are like a precursor to Warhol. Some of his stuff is like a precursor to street art. He's got a sense of humor too."

"Well, you'll be glad to know that our next exhibition is about Ray Johnson."

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center just closed its latest exhibit, of Susan Weil's "poemumbles" - short poems written on plain white notebook paper with an accompanying image (a small drawing, photo, painting or collage).

Weil sent approximately 5,000 of these to Andres Tomberg, her Swedish art dealer.

I am struck by a photo of a textile with a ripped painting attached to it, a black and white watercolor, torn to smaller and smaller pieces. It seems so Black Mountain College to mix all the art disciplines.

Then I notice a photo of Merce Cunningham dancing with a chair attached to his back. I get that buzz. It is simple and funny and beautiful and still feels new.

Two days later, I drive over to the Lake Eden campus to visit Jennifer Pickering. Pickering created LEAF, the Lake Eden Arts Festival, and now manages it with husband Leigh Maher.

When Black Mountain College was dissolving in the late 1950s, her father bought the upper property and Camp Rockmont bought the lower property around the lake.

LEAF is one of the local venues where Black Mountain College is remembered and made current. Twice a year, a range of international artists is invited to perform here, mirroring the summer sessions at Black Mountain College where renowned artists visited for shorter periods of time.

Pickering and Maher have a Bauhaus-style home just above the barn, a structure built by the Black Mountain College staff and students.

On a warm Friday afternoon we sit outside the barn and enjoy the weather. I ask Pickering about any family memories of the college.

Pickering says that she grew up in the Black Mountain College administration building without a sense of the extraordinary place and history.

Jennifer Pickering and Leigh Maher want to preserve the former Black Mountain College property.

Pickering and Maher explain how they are attempting to maintain the property so it remains similar to the college days.

"We want to preserve and not develop it," Maher says. "Visitors can come here and see what it looked like during the college and have that transformative experience. We're looking to create artist retreats in the future."

"LEAF is connecting artists from around the world," Pickering adds. "We offer pathways to experience Black Mountain College, through tours, and through art installations."

Pickering shows me pictures from this year's spring LEAF, the one just concluded. One photo is of a geodesic dome with children climbing on it, referencing Buckminster Fuller's work.

Then she shows me a photo of an installation in the barn by Asheville artist Severn Eaton.

Inside the installation, people are wearing massive pillow helmets, listening to ambient sounds.

It seems so strange and new that I get that buzz again.