By Kevin Basl
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I visited the Hammer Museum for Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957, a collection of educational tools, photos, and works from famous (and not so famous) patrons of that experimental and influential Appalachian school. John Cage, Anni and Josef Albers, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, R. Buckminister Fuller, Charles Olsen, Robert Creely—this impressive list of artists and intellectuals who taught and studied there goes on. Leap Before You Look filled some gaps in my understanding of 20th century American art, while deepening my appreciation for the U.S. tradition of studio craft schools.
Perhaps one of the keys to the success of Black Mountain College (not to ignore the fact that it closed under financial pressures) is how it fostered community, establishing a holistic, creative incubator, an atmosphere still found at the best craft schools (and increasingly unaffordable) liberal arts colleges.
Black Mountain was established by John A. Rice, a controversial educator who argued that the arts should be the center of education, and that students and faculty should govern their own learning institution, not a board of trustees or a corporation. The college was owned by the faculty, and bureaucracy was limited. Beyond teaching and practicing their craft, instructors hauled trash, worked in the gardens, and lived with students. Communal living, with a horizontal operations and decision-making process, was the foundation of the college’s Deweyan “learning by doing” teaching philosophy.
One thing I hadn’t realized before seeing the Hammer’s exhibition was how Black Mountain links the famous German art and design school Bauhaus (still influencing everything from Apple products to pre-fab architecture) to the model used by studio craft schools in the U.S. today. After the Nazis forced the closure of Bauhaus, Anni and Josef Albers left Germany to teach at Black Mountain, importing many of Bauhaus’ aesthetics and principles, not least its goal to synthesize life and art, to design a new modern living environment (Bauhaus online.de). Later, the then-struggling Penland School of Crafts would get a jumpstart when its second director, Bill Brown, followed Black Mountain’s example and employed the best craft instructors available and offered work-study scholarships and extended residencies. According to Black Mountain student and poet Jonathan Williams, “Penland began to replace much that Black Mountain College stood for in its last phase [1951 through its closure]” (Barker 87). Today, many studio craft schools share this Black Mountain-inspired model with Penland, including Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee, Peters Valley School of Craft in New Jersey, and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on the coast of Maine—an annual destination for Combat Paper NJ and Frontline Arts for the past four years.
Ascending the evergreen-shaded drive at Haystack is like entering a dream-place (the campus, overlooking an archipelago—aptly mist-shrouded in the right humidity—reminds me of a beached ship from some magical realism novel). In the dining hall, conversations are slow, turn in unexpected directions. We set down our tools to observe the moon…just because its there. New materials are combined, pieces rearranged, disparate parts juxtaposed, all in anticipation of what new thing might emerge. Not least, we make friends and learn from them.
Of course, it’s easy to romanticize these schools. We can’t forget that someone writes the grants, schedules workshops, there are student squabbles, divisive politics. And, try as you may, you’ll never escape assholes.
Still, this is an educational model I’d like to see embraced by more institutions. I wonder how we might propagate such an arts-focused community, apply it to our mobile, virtual, urban, fast-paced society? Is a physical space—a locality—a prerequisite? Can an abandoned factory be as inspirational as a seaside retreat? Can we build a Black Mountain-inspired community without the rural seclusion? These are questions Frontline Arts intends to explore in the field—in the streets (no small challenge considering the extent to which the arts are under attack in our hyper-capitalized world).
I will say that as a Combat Paper facilitator, teaching the craft of hand papermaking to fellow veterans, I’ve seen our transient (usually weeklong) workshop create something like the immersive communities that exist at studio craft schools. At least, I like to think the communities we build give participants a taste of a world we ought to strive towards, one where artistic creativity is an end in itself and all voices are heard.
Barker, Garry. The Handcraft Revival in Southern Appalachia, 1930-1990. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Print.