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CARPE LIBRUM: Time travel back to NC’s Black Mountain College, circa 1933-1957

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Smith and South’s book really made Gwenyfar feel like she could step into any of the pictures and strike up a conversation with the people there.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Black MountainBlack Mountain College
Anne Chesky Smith and Heather South
Arcadia Publishing, 2014, pgs. 126

“It’s like Montessori for adults; that’s the easiest way to explain it,” I said.

I was trying to explain the theory behind “Black Mountain College” to Jock; I knew I had spun into one of those cycles where the more I said, the less coherent the idea became. Like many couples, we have a variety of short-hand explanations for conversation. Neither of us need to explain who Dr. Montessori was or the Montessori method of education. I spent nine years at a Montessori school and both of Jock’s children attended Montessori, so we understand the ideas and practices. Much of Montessori focuses on interdisciplinary, experiential, hands-on education. There is more to it than that, but for this conversation, that will suffice.

“You know I had heard of it, but I never knew very much about it,” Jock mused.

I agreed.

I can tell you the first moment I remember hearing about Black Mountain College. I was at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) in the late ‘90s. Michael Malone pointed to where we were standing and noted Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome on the ground of Black Mountain College, which was here, before it became a summer camp. I was living at K&K Organic Farm then and we had geodesic structures, so Buckminster Fuller’s designs were an easy touchstone for me.

In the intervening years, I have maintained a passing interest in the educational experiment known as Black Mountain College. I must confess: I failed to grasp the enormity of what they tried and when they put it into practice. So when Anne Chesky Smith and Heather South’s book came into my hands, I was primed.

Black Mountain College was started in 1933 and survived until 1957. It was an experiment in higher education that put the arts and design at the core of study. Students lived in a community that included working on the campus farm—which was essential to actually feed everybody. This was The Great Depression after all.  In the beginning the faculty insisted just as much learning took place through discussion over coffee as from classroom experience—and it was actively encouraged. Considering the focus on lectures in high education then (and today), it was an unusual position to take. The list of faculty include the aforementioned Buckminster Fuller, choreographer Merce Cunningham and John Cage, among other artists and thinkers who passed through the gates.  Alumni include filmmaker Arthur Penn and author Francine du Plessix Gray. Perhaps, more importantly, they integrated their events and assemblies as early as 1933, and in 1944 became the first all white college in the American South to integrate their student body.

Considering a number of their faculty and students had fled Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s, one has to imagine thoughtful and provocative discussions such brilliant people had about the parallels of Naziism and the Jim Crow South. They put their words into action—and that’s the most notable part.

The book is primarily a photographic essay but accompanied by much more text than one usually expects. The introduction is fascinating and gives a strong cause-and-effect timeline to understand 24 tumultuous years.

What were they trying to achieve? How were they setting about it? What unexpected successes and failures did they find? Each photograph is very well-identified in a solid paragraph of text. The authors move things forward into the present era, with photos from college reunions and a brief discussion of the college’s museum and arts center, which “preserves and continues the legacy of educational and artistic innovation.” The photographs are a fascinating range, from posed portraits to candid shots from private collections. Clearly, in the first year they were trying to document the inception: pictures of the grounds, faculty, students etc. As the years wear on, and programs evolve, the photos become more dynamic and exciting.  In all though, the stunning backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Swannanoa Valley remind of the inspiration of place; to seek something higher, more enlightening.

Though the endeavor itself only lasted less than 30 years, the impact is much farther reaching than most could have imagined. Many interdisciplinary college programs today, like Warren Wilson or Hampshire College, continue to implement concepts pioneered at Black Mountain. Though Fuller’s design work continues to be a beacon, it is really the daily living, working, and exchange that resonates down the years. The college was a space to explore, to create, and to try and possibly fail—and through that failure achieve something greater than ever expected.

Smith and South’s book really made me feel like I could step into any of the pictures and strike up a conversation with the people there. It’s like I know so much about each one, enough to feel connected to them as individuals and also as part of a larger community they’re welcoming me into.

For a look at a very special time and place in North Carolina’s history— time when it felt like the intelligentsia of the world came to the Blue Ridge Mountains—pick up this book. It truly is a time machine.

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