Project celebrates the women of Black Mountain College

Cora Kelley Ward in Emerson Woelffer’s painting class at BMC, summer 1949. Photos courtesy Of Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center

What was it like to be a woman at Black Mountain College? To help answer that question, a yearlong project kicks off next week that celebrates the women of Black Mountain College and their accomplishments in the arts, literature, dance and academia.

The Shape of Imagination: Women of Black Mountain College will include three exhibitions, along with performances, films, poetry readings, workshops and panel discussions.

The internationally influential Black Mountain College opened in 1933, based on principles of progressive education. Located in Swannanoa, the college was a legend in its own time, attracting and influencing students and teachers who would become important figures of the late 20th century. A partial list of the college’s maverick spirits includes Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Dorothea Rockburne.

Although the college closed in 1956, its influence continues to be celebrated by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, founded in 1993, and located in downtown Asheville.

The center’s focus on the women of BMC was an idea whose time had come, says program director Alice Sebrell.

Mary Parks Washington, summer 1946.

“Once the idea was voiced, it was like, ‘Yes, we must do this and do it now,’” Sebrell says. “Most of these women are in their 70s and 80s. We’re so excited about having many of them come here in person.”

The Women of BMC project begins at the tail end of the college’s 75th anniversary celebration. That celebration, held Sept. 25-27 in Hickory, culminates with a tour of BMC’s Lake Eden campus on Sunday, Sept. 28. BMC scholar Mary Emma Harris will lead the tour of the buildings and grounds of the campus. Harris, author of The Arts at Black Mountain College, resides in New York.

Harris also will lead a symposium titled, “What was it like to be a woman at Black Mountain College?” The panelists are five women who attended BMC in the 1940s and 50s, including Alma Stone Williams, who was the college’s first black student in 1944 (see for an interview with Williams).

The Spirit of Black Mountain College 75th anniversary celebration

Lenoir-Rhyne College and the Hickory Museum of Art will host a weekend of literature, music, art and dance events from Thursday, Sept. 25 to Saturday, Sept. 27, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Black Mountain College. An additional event will be held at BMC’s former campus in Swannanoa.

The events are designed to bring together artists who embody the experimental spirit of Black Mountain College; to collaborate with arts organizations regionally and to prepare the way for a fledgling Black Mountain College Summer Institute at Lenoir-Rhyne College beginning summer 2009.

For a complete listing of events, visit

Authors include Galway Kinnell, Michael Rumaker, Lisa Jarnot, Lee Ann Brown, Jeff Davis and Thomas Meyer.

Performances include Thomas Rain Crowe and The Boatrockers, Ted Pope, Cilla Vee, Lenoir-Rhyne Playmakers, The North Carolina Dance Theatre, Nils Vigeland and John Cheek.

The celebration includes a Sunday, Sept. 28 tour at 3 p.m. of Black Mountain College’s Lake Eden campus, which will be lead by BMC scholar Mary Emma Harris.

Pre-register for the tour at 350-8484. Cost is $20 or $15 for BMC+AC members.

A reception from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 3 will serve as the official launch of the project, showcasing the first Women of Black Mountain College exhibit at the Museum + Arts Center. The exhibit features art, poetry, class notes, musical notations, books, photographs and short memoirs from many of the participants.

“The intent from the very beginning was to cast a wide net,” Sebrell says. “We wanted to embrace as many women who passed through the college as we could.”

Sebrell has gathered two shelves of books written by the approximately 425 female students and faculty who passed through the college (only 1,200 total students attended BMC during its 23 years). The books range from pulp fiction to children’s books to nonfiction to travelogues.

One of the most prolific writers featured is children’s author and illustrator Vera B. Williams, who graduated from BMC in 1948. She’s received a number of awards for her books, including two Caldecott Honor Book awards. Just a few weeks ago, she won the 2009 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature for her body of work. Williams, a resident of New York City, will be on the Oct. 4 symposium panel. She’ll also be reading and signing her books that day at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café at 11 a.m.

Women of BMC events

The Shape of Imagination: Women of Black Mountain College will include three exhibitions, along with performances, films, poetry readings, workshops and panel discussions.

Poetry readings, more exhibits, lectures, and workshops continue throughout the year. For more information, visit

what: Exhibit opening: The Shape of the Imagination: Women of Black Mountain College
where: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 56 Broadway
when: Oct. 3 (6-8 p.m., $3, free for BMC+AC members)

what: “What Was it Like to be a Woman at Black Mountain College?” symposium
where: UNCA Humanities Lecture Hall
when: Oct. 4 (3 p.m. $7, $5 for BMC+AC members, free for UNCA faculty/students)

Of her BMC experience, Williams says: “It was a powerfully involving community. There was a variety of experiences you could you have. I actually made a children’s book while I was there. I wove the binding and learned to bind. I also helped in the milk room, painted my own study, and built my own desk with help from Mary Gregory. I had never done those kinds of things.”

[Anne Fitten Glenn can be reached at]










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