Two local artists, Adam Void and Chelsea Ragan, have organized a reboot of Black Mountain College. The monthlong program, called the Black Mountain School, brings art instructors, staff and students from all over the world to the Black Mountain YMCA’s Blue Ridge Assembly — the original site of the college from 1933 to 1940 (before relocating to Lake Eden).
The curriculum draws from DIY know-how, contemporary art ideas, and pop and Appalachian culture (classes include “No Math Architecture,” “How Hip-Hop Transformed Contemporary Art” and “Unlearning Cherokee”). Speakers like Erick Lyle and Bill Daniel belong to the Mission School, a group of artists from the 1990s and 2000s focused on contemporary urban folk art.
While 2016 class registration is closed, BMS is hosting visitor days and free public events. The next by-reservation date to visit the program is Saturday, May 28; Charlie McAlister gives a music performance on Thursday, May 26. (See sidebar for details.)
Though he graduated from the Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art in Baltimore, Void wants to provide a new sort of education space outside of the traditional MFA channels. It’s an idea closely linked to the impetus behind Black Mountain College, which was “born out of a desire to create a new type of college based on John Dewey’s principles of progressive education,” according to the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center website. “Founders of the college believed that the study and practice of art were indispensable aspects of a student’s general liberal arts education.”
Others involved with Black Mountain School second the need for a different approach to education. Co-organizer Amanda Wong says BMS is “resonant with the drive to expand the belief and structural systems of art and thought.”
“One of the core initiatives for BMS … is the desire for a new pedagogy,” says Bill Daniel, a filmmaker and photographer who has been documenting and participating in punk and DIY scenes since the 1980s. “It’s widely recognized what a disaster [higher education] in this country has become, especially arts education.” This summer, he’s teaching two classes at BMS: “Junk Camera Workshop: Low-fi Photography for Primitive Application” and “DIY Touring Strategies for Visual and Media Artists.” Daniel will also be giving a public talk on Monday, May 30, about his pop-up photography installation, Tri-X-Noise.
Organizers of BMS hope to take the avant-garde spirit of the historic college and wed it with what they believe to be a close contemporary equivalent of punk, street and outsider art. Void has a background in street art, using fire-extinguisher graffiti and has been referenced in the punk magazine Maximum Rocknroll.
Another participant in BMS is Tim Kerr, founding member of legendary hard-core punk band Big Boys. The local writer and musician will lead a public Q&A about the DIY scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Kerr feels DIY culture pulls from the same ideas as the original Black Mountain College, saying, “We were all caught up in the same spirit that started Black Mountain: beat, hippie, whatever they will call it next.”
The original Black Mountain College functioned as an incubator for American artists such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Creeley, Anni and Josef Albers and many others escaping Hitler in Nazi-occupied Europe, seeking refuge from mainstream educational institutions or the poverty of urban centers. Many of these artists created seminal works during their time in Western North Carolina. Cage’s “Theater Piece No. 1,” staged at the college, is considered to be one of the inaugural Happenings. Faculty member Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, erected his first prototype at the college.
The density of genius passing through the campus during its short 24-year life has long fixated curators and artists alike. Over the past 15 years alone, there have been major museum shows examining the legacy of Black Mountain College in Bristol, England; Madrid, Berlin and, this year, Los Angeles.
Black Mountain College was in operation for a short period yet made a lasting impact. Some of its faculty and alumni went on to achieve legendary status in the art world. “I also think that there’s a real magic in Black Mountain, on that original campus, that is truly palpable, and that I feel every time I’m there,” says BMS secretary Heidi Gruner. “To be on the original campus feels like a great privilege, and that is not lost on us.”