Art & Crafts from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina
July 8, 2014 § 1 Comment
Black Mountain College & Penland School of Crafts
Date of Visit: June 2014
1. Black Mountain College /Defunct Campus*
375 Eden Lake Road
Black Mountain, North Carolina
*Currently privately owned by Camp Rockmont for Boys
2. Black Mountain College and Museum Arts Center
56 Broadway Street
Asheville, North Carolina
3. Penland School of Crafts
Penland, North Carolina
Where western North Carolina rubs shoulders with Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina rise the Blue Ridge Mountains, some of the most beautiful mountains in the United States. The southern Appalachian peaks are higher than any others east of the Mississippi but of equal stature are the music, art and crafts that flow out of the hollows and valleys in between. We visited two centers of art education that originated in these mountains, one highly experimental (Black Mountain College) and the other more traditional (Penland School of Crafts). Although these schools started within 10 years of each other and both had a focus on the arts there is very little documented interaction between the two. Read on to understand why.
Black Mountain College
Although Black Mountain College existed for only 20-some years, never achieved accreditation and barely enrolled more than about 50-80 students per term, the impressive roster of students and teachers who passed through significantly impacted American art ; Josef and Annie Albers, Ruth Asawa, Joseph Beuys, Harry Callahan, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, R. Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Franz Kline, Elaine Marie de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Charles Olson, Robert Rauschenberg, Ben Shahn, Cy Twombly, Peter Voulkos and many others.
We had been under the impression that the school was some kind of a “new world Bauhaus” but under closer investigation we learned that art was just one part of the BMC curricular view that music, art and drama “should no longer have a precarious existence on the fringes of the curriculum but…should be at the very center of things.”  It was not originally intended as an art school, in fact the most influential member of its group of founders, John Andrew Rice, considered art schools as the “most awful places in the world.” At BMC the arts were originally meant as way for students to “express something of a student’s inner being, “not a ‘neurotic”, egoistic focus on making art.
Rice, fired from his professorship at Rollins College for unorthodox behavior and battling the administration, rounded up a few other ex-Rollins faculty and students to start their own educational experiment in 1933. Their initial effort coalesced within the buildings of a religious summer conference center left vacant during the winter in the town of Black Mountain (about an hour from Asheville). Because the founding group did not include art educators painter Josef Albers and his wife, textile artist Anni (both past instructors at the Bauhaus in Germany) were hired on the recommendation of Architect Phillip Johnson and the then director of the Museum of Modern Art, Edward M.M. Warburg (who was active in relocating artists who fled persecution in Europe). Mr. Albers did not speak English however his lack of language meshed with his pedagogy that art cannot be explained by words or literal descriptions…”the performance, how it is done, that is the content of art.”  It must have been a culture shock for the Albers to land in the American South shortly after leaving their home in Berlin.
BMC was an exercise in democratic cooperation— the faculty owned the college and included the students in decisions about curriculum and policy. Faculty and students lived in close proximity and dined together at each meal. Every decision of consequence, including student applicants and faculty hiring, was by consensus in a seemingly endless schedule of community meetings. As in all such intimate arrangements personalities, personal philosophies, slights and major disagreements lead to dissension. Rice lost the confidence of the community after professional and personal missteps and was asked to resign in 1940.
By 1941 the college relocated to their own year-round campus on a rural setting of 667 acres featuring a small lake and a few cottages. Grandiose plans for the new buildings were drawn up by Walter Gropius and his partner Marcel Breuer but the estimated construction cost was out of reach for the perennially cash-strapped college. A. Lawrence Kocher (on the faculty from 1940-43) proposed a more modest general “studies building.” The construction was overseen by a local contractor using the labor of BMC students. (Can you imagine asking students to help build their own campus today?) There was, understandably, some student discontent about the arrangement and the work sessions reduced to 3 afternoons a week.
The Albers introduced Black Mountain’s most successful program, the Summer Institutes, in 1944. Summer 1945 included visual and performing arts; Walter Gropius, Lionel Feininger, Alvin Lustig, Robert Motherwell on the art faculty and musicians and composers Ronald Hayes, Carol Brice and Alfred Einstein in the Music Institute. The success of the summer program convinced Albers and sympathetic faculty that the college should concentrate specifically on the arts during the winter term. During this early post-war period the full-time student body grew to almost 100 funded by tuitions from the GI bill. BMC painting stars, Robert Rauschenberg (drawn to Josef Albers’s rigorous curriculum) his future wife, Susan Weil, and Kenneth Noland studied at the college.
Crafts were not taught at BMC although a ceramics studio was established. The Albers looked down on ceramics, and crafts in general as “associated with hobbies, Nazi kitsch, and therapy.”  Nevertheless an impressive number of important artists-in-residence worked in ceramics: Daniel Rhodes, Warren MacKenzie, Peter Volkous, Karen Karnes and David Weinrib. Voulkos and Weinri pushed ceramics beyond the craft arena into fine art sculpture. None of the faculty received much salary. Karnes reports that pay was $25 a month for teaching along with free room and board. BMC attracted the sort of individual who was less concerned about money than the artistic freedom the college afforded.
The Summer Institute continued after the Albers’ departure in 1947. During the 1952 session John Cage performed his Theater Piece No. 1, an unscripted event considered by many as the first Happening. The Dada-like multimedia performance featured simultaneous events; Cage read texts from atop stepladder, Rauschenberg displayed his white paintings, David Tutor performed on the piano, Charles Olson and M.C. Richards recited poetry while Merce Cunningham and a dog danced around an audience seated in four triangular areas.
Money from the summer sessions probably allowed BMC to live a bit longer than it might if solely dependent upon the term students. During the last few years, as the school spiraled toward bankruptcy, the curriculum shifted to literary arts. Work of avant-garde poets and writers at the college (or somehow connected to the school) appeared in The Black Mountain Review.
Ideological differences, a constantly shifting faculty and student body, a reputation of Bohemianism and a serious lack of funds led to the college’s closure in 1956. The campus is now privately owned.
Visiting Black Mountain College Today
A lovely stretch of tree-lined road leads you a spot where the campus is viewable from across Lake Eden. (We can’t stress enough that the campus is now private. We were permitted access as the camp was not yet in session). On close inspection Kocher’s building is showing its age. Large trees and bushes obscure the Modernist lines. A set of murals, painted by Jean Charlot during the first Summer Institute have severely faded. However you can sense how it must have felt like a creative utopia, ringed by hills protecting the artists from the outside world.
The Black Mountain Museum and Arts Center
In 1993 Mary Holden founded the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in Asheville to preserve its legacy. We arrived on a Saturday morning at opening time and entered into the gallery space filled with selections from the permanent collection. Apart from the show there was a nice video about the history of the college and a good selection of books for purchase. Having read a few of them, we can recommend both Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay by Christopher Benfey and Black Mountain : An Exploration in Community by Martin Duberman. Entrance is free and the location, in downtown Asheville is convenient to the hip sections in town. Well worth the stop.
The Penland School of Crafts
After leaving Black Mountain it was just a short drive to Penland School of Crafts. Once again we were entering a beautiful rural campus much removed from the rest of the world but despite their proximity and originating within five years of each other there was apparently very little connection between the two establishments. While both schools fostered a spirit of cooperation BMC was all about experimentation and interdisciplinary collaboration influenced by academic Europeans while Penland was an all-American endeavor born out of a mission for traditional craft revival.
(We dug around and found a few intersections of note: In 1945 Anni Albers is on record as having lectured at Penland on Functional Design in Relation to Weaving. In 1967 former BMC ceramic artist-in-residence, Karen Karnes, taught at Penland where she was first exposed to salt glazing, a turning point in her work.)
Penland’s forerunner, the Appalachian Industrial School, was an Episcopal vocational mission school founded in 1914 by Reverend Rufus Morgan (1885-1983) to provide economic support to mountain families. Rufus’ sister, Lucy Calista Morgan (1889-1981) arrived in 1920 to teach but was also urged by her brother,”to learn to weave, and to possibly interest others enough to revive an art that had lingered longer in the mountains than anywhere else.” 
During the winter of 1923 ‘Miss Lucy’ studied weaving under Swedish-born weaver Anna Ernberg during an extended visit at Berea College in Kentucky. As early as 1893 Berea’s president William G. Frost “recognized the possibilities for employment of mountain craftspeople at a time when industrialization had diminished the production of crafts in the large urban centers of the country, and consumerism had found its way into the Appalachian Mountains, ending what had been a survival skill of the 18th century. Consumerism entered mountain communities through country stores and the arrival of the Sears Roebuck mail order catalog.”  While at Berea Miss Lucy also met Edith Matheny who had established a successful cottage industry of community weavers, the Berea Fireside Industries and was deeply inspired.
In the spring Miss Lucy returned to North Carolina with a mission to both preserve the local art of weaving and to improve the lives of her community (as was the prevailing philosophy of the William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement that was sweeping the county). She initiated the Fireside Industries of the Appalachian School by teaching a local woman to weave and paid her for her wares. As soon as the news circulated that there was a means for women to earn a living from home Miss Lucy was besieged with anxious weaving students. A dedicated weaving cottage was built with donations of logs and labor from the students and community.
With a group of over of 60 weavers in her charge Miss Lucy invited well-known weaving expert and champion of the manual education movement, Edward Francis Worst (1866-1949), to work with the weavers. A published report from that event generated such interest from weavers all over the country that the following year (1929) Mr. Worst returned to a class of locals mixed with out-of-state students. The Fireside Industries was soon renamed The Penland School of Weavers and then again as The Penland School of Weavers and Potters. The school remained under The Appalachian School until 1938 and then became its own entity.
Today Penland is a thriving community of students who arrive for two-week workshops, 8-week intensive studies, two-year core studies or as part of the highly selective 3-year artist-in residence program. There are 14 media offerings including clay, paper, printing, letterpress, metal, iron, wood, glass, photography and of course, weaving. Each area has a dedicated studio building with plenty of studio space for each student.
We spent an inspiring and exhausting two weeks at Penland, one of us enrolled in letterpress and the other in woodworking. The facilities were terrific. Our teachers, leaders in their fields, were inspiring and helpful. The mish-mash of over 140 strangers bonded quickly into a cohesive bunch of artists who supported and admired each other’s work.
Certainly being in the protective environment of the hills helped us block out the world and delve deeply into our work. There are precious few places like this and hopefully Penland will continue into the future, alive and flourishing unlike its past neighbor at Black Mountain.
“Nichi, nichi kore ko kore.” Every day is a good day – a Zen saying adopted by students at Black Mountain College.
Sources and Acknowledgements
Many thanks to Deb Schillo, librarian at Southern Highland Craft Guild, Andrew Glasgow at Penland School of Crafts and Professor Christopher Benfey (Author, Professor and The Albers’ grandnephew) for helping me verify facts on Anni Albers at Penland.
 Duberman,Martin. Black Mountain : An Exploration in Community. 2009, Northwestern University Press, p.38.
 Ibid, p. 41.
 Ibid, p. 47.
 Benfey, Christopher. Correspondence.
 Morgan, Lucy. Gift from the Hills. The University of North Carolina Press; 1 edition (May 15, 2011). Page 9.
 Stopenhagen Broomfield, Sarah. 2006. Weaving Social Change: Berea College Fireside Industries and Reform in Appalachia. Textile Society of America Symposium. University of Nebraska – Lincoln Digital Commons.
Robert E. Lee Hall from Wikipedia and YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly
Albers, Faculty Meeting, BMC Work Camp, Weaving cabin images from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Western Regional Archives Link
Images: Blue Mountains, inside BMC Museum and 2014 Rockport Camp, Penland today by Eric Allen Link
Anni Albers Guild Workshop documentation, Southern Highlands Craft Guild Library.
Edward Worst and wife Link