Time of their lives

“Start on the path, and the helpers will arrive.”

For writer Michael Rumaker, speaking from his home outside New York City, this maxim recalls the simple truth of his own experience as a Black Mountain College student in the 1950s.

But the school — situated just outside its namesake village, 15 minutes east of Asheville — was never a “college” in the traditional sense. No ivy-covered halls, here — just a rustic-to-frayed jumble of old summer-camp buildings by the shores of tranquil Lake Eden.

The surrounding Seven Sisters mountain range sheltered a remarkable place — which, in two brief but incandescent decades (1933-1955), evolved into an innovative and creative “state of mind” that produced an unbelievable roster of later-famous writers, dancers, musicians and visual artists.

Their collective imprint on 20th-century arts and letters is a matter of record. The list, composed of both students and instructors, includes architect/writer Buckminster Fuller; artists Josef and Annie Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning; poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley; dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham; composer John Cage; writer Francine du Plessix-Gray; film director Arthur Penn; sculptor Neil Noland; and architect Claude Stoller, among others.

Instituted in response to a fiery dispute over creative and academic freedom, educational theory, college administration and tenure at Rollins College, a small liberal-arts school in Florida, the new institution was formed by educator John Rice, who left Rollins and took his radical approach north.

Under Rice’s tutelage, BMC students were freed from the rigid parameters of traditional education.

“The creative energy was absolutely extraordinary,” recalls Rumaker. Daily life consisted of small, informal classes (frequently held outdoors), marked by discussion, rather than lecture. Frequently, the talk continued into the communal dining hall, and often well into the night.

There were no grades, as such. Upon graduation, students did receive a diploma, though the school was never accredited. But a rigorous examination of each student, upon completion of the course work, ensured a smooth — nay, distinguished — transition to the conventional academic or professional world beyond Black Mountain.

“We were encouraged to work on our own — and above all, to read, read, read,” emphasizes Rumaker. “Books passed from hand to hand like sacred relics.”

The school set the standard for avant-garde education, rupturing traditional notions.

Purportedly, BMC students were so enamored of learning that — despite steadily decreasing funding and resources in the 1950s — they coped at all costs. Rumaker remembers that the books housed in the school’s limited — though select — library were often duplicated onto typewritten pages that passed from student to student.

Above all, the college’s biggest perk was simply the space — and time — it gave its students to grow and blossom.

Poet Charles Olson, Rumaker’s mentor there, liberated the young writer — at the same time informing him about the weighty risk-taking required to foster true creative growth.

“He encouraged me to free my poetry from the deadliness of conventional verse,” reflects the author, ” … to allow the form to occur in the moment of composition” — a notion that lay at the very heart of the Black Mountain College experience.

Today, 44 years after pedestrian financial constraints occasioned its demise, Black Mountain College hasn’t lost its fascination. It has become part of the cultural folklore of 20th-century America — a mythic creation that continues to inspire.

Today, the spirit of Black Mountain College lives on through the efforts of the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, a nonprofit organization launched in 1993 to preserve the school’s legacy. The Center is developing a comprehensive library and archive of letters, manuscripts and recordings of alumni. And while the search for a permanent physical home for the Center is ongoing, a Web site (www.main.us/bmc/bmcmac/mac.html) provides much information.

In addition, a series of published dossiers — available at bookstores — examines the life and work of individuals connected with the college. Outside Looking In: A Photographic Documentary of the People of Black Mountain College — compiled by Black Mountain scholar and photographer Stacey Galetto — was featured this month at Pack Place Gallery, and closes this weekend with a symposium, “Points of View II: The Black Mountain College Experience.”

Six BMC alumni will be featured in a panel discussion: Educator/jewelry maker Hope Greer Eisenman; photographer/gallery owner Clemens Kalischer (an unofficial student invited there by photo historian Beaumont Newhall); sculptor Neil Noland, who attended BMC on the GI bill after WWII; Berkeley-based professor/architect Claude Stoller, who worked with Josef and Anni Albers and Lawrence Kocher; educator (and widely exhibited painter) Mary Parks Washington, a 1940s-era black student (as might be expected, the college was integrated far earlier than most other institutions); and Rumaker, a City College of New York professor who attended Black Mountain College in its final days and has since authored numerous socially important books of poetry and fiction, including the novel Pagan Days (Circumstantial Press, 2000).

Panelists will illuminate their experiences in Black Mountain, as well as the influence the school has had (and still has) on their lives.

“It wasn’t happenstance that a confluence of individuals … of such intelligence initially came together [at Black Mountain College] … looking for something beyond the conventional teaching and searching,” Rumaker muses. “We don’t always find those people. A lot of us don’t find those people.”

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