Saturday, July 02, 2011

a ten-day trip to north carolina

sarah, siena, and i recently returned from a ten-day trip to north carolina. we stayed mostly in hickory, where sarah's friend and college roommate pattie, her husband dan, and their daughters kenzie and maya live. good times for all, including the girls.

for three days, i bolted to nearby asheville. with help from a USF faculty development fund award, i was able to spend time with the black mountain college museum + arts center collection at ramsey library at the university of north carolina asheville.

black mountain college, or BMC, was a small liberal arts college that existed between 1933 - 1957 in the blue ridge mountains in western north carolina. the focus of black mountain college was the education of the whole human being.

for its time - and for our times - black mountain college was massively experimental. faculty owned the university. all students, faculty, and faculty families lived on campus, where they ate together in the dining hall and danced together on saturday nights. there were no grades. classes were not mandatory but once enrolled, students - as well as professor - were expected to be fully prepared and participatory. at the center of the curriculum was arts because arts encourage students to focus, create, engage, and cooperate. students were included in nearly all meetings and committees, even those responsible for faculty hiring and firing. the responsibilities of running the college were shared by all.

i am especially interested in BMC's work program. black mountain college combined formal studies and physical labor. in between classes and coursework, students - and sometimes faculty - cleared the hillside for pasture, waited tables in the dining room, maintained campus roads, hauled coal, dug ditches, collected field stones for masonry work, served and cleared four o'clock tea, and, miraculously, designed and built a building.

my main interest is the farm on black mountain college. in particular, i am interested in the history of the farm and its changing role within the college and its work program. i am interested in the farm work - who taught the skills? who organized the teams? who did the work? i am also interested in the farm's output - what was grown? which animals were raised? who got the food? and finally, i am interested in how the farm was used as a creative and collaborate space for student and faculty learning.

black mountain college is primarily known and remembered for the remarkable faculty, visiting faculty, and students it attracted. a partial list includes josef and anni albers, ruth asawa, john cage, robert creeley, merce cunningham, willem and elaine de kooning, buckminster fuller, alfred kazin, jacob lawrence, charles olson, arthur penn, robert rauschenberg, and m.c. richards. new and important things happened here - bucky fuller would attempt his first geodesic dome, john cage would stage the world's first "happening," and merce cunningham would form his dance company.

because of this, black mountain college has received plenty of attention. there's martin duberman's black mountain college: an exploration in community and mary emma harris' the arts at black mountain college. there's cathryn davis and neeley house's documentary fully awake: black mountain college and the black mountain college project. and then there's the ├╝ber archive, the black mountain college collection at the state archives in raleigh, north carolina.

after three days in asheville, i said thanks to sally klipp, special collections librarian at ramsey library, and drove back to hickory. then, pattie, dan, kenzie, maya, sarah, siena, and i drove to blowing rock for a few days in a log cabin in the mountains. fun, watermelon, and good food were had by all.

before we left, i asked pattie when the best times are to visit north carolina. "april and october," she answered without hesitation. thinking of my sabbatical a year from now, i said, "cool - we'll be back then."