“Inspiration” and “Knowledge” at the base of the Studies Building. Black Mountain College, 1944. Postcard. Courtesy of the Western Regional Archives. A gift from Janet Heling Roberts.

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (BMCM+AC) has begun an exciting new project that will reinvigorate one of Black Mountain College’s most iconic artworks: the Jean Charlot fresco murals painted on the pylons underneath the Studies Building during the Summer Session of 1944.


Jean Charlot working on fresco “Inspiration” under the Studies Building Black Mountain College, Summer 1944. Courtesy of Western Regional Archives. Gift of Janet Heling Roberts.

By 1944, Black Mountain College was firmly established at the Lake Eden Campus. There was no longer a need for students to vacate for the summer as they had during the years at Robert E. Lee Hall. This change led to one of BMC’s greatest innovations, the Summer Art Institutes. The legacy of these summer sessions can’t be understated, with influential artists, educators, and visiting students gathering at Black Mountain to discover and experience the most pressing issues in art, music, and other disciplines. The inaugural Summer Institute in 1944, is commemorated by two frescos painted on the concrete pylons of the Studies Building. Jean Charlot, a French expatriot and former assistant to Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, was invited by Josef Albers to teach that summer. During his time at BMC, Charlot produced the frescos Inspiration and Knowledge. He was assisted by students in the painting of the frescos as well as the preparation of the concrete pylons. Painted in the true fresco style, these murals depict two allegorical figures whose bodies contort to the shape of the pylons. Inspiration, on the North side, holds a drafting instrument and gazes up at the sky in thought. Knowledge, at the South, is shrouded in a cloak, its body wrapped around a book.

Both frescos remain intact at the base of the Studies Building, though as the campus has evolved over the years, their condition has degraded due to issues related to human and environmental causes. The frescos have faded, molded, and have surface damage consistent with repeated cleaning and graffiti. It is our goal to conserve the frescos and prevent future damage. To help us complete this project, we consulted conservator Christiana Cunningham-Adams who assessed the frescos this past July.

When Cunningham-Adams first arrived, she visited the Western Regional Archives where she researched the process Charlot used to paint the murals. Through photographs, notes, and newspaper clippings, she was able to ascertain that they were in fact true frescos, an important factor in their restoration. She concluded that it was due to Charlot’s skill as a fresco artist that the images have maintained their quality to this point.

Cunningham-Adams (left), Crawford (center), and Sebrell (right) examine the surface of “Knowledge”

Accompanied by the team at the Western Regional Archives, her colleague Craig Crawford, and Alice Sebrell (Program Director of BMCM+AC), Cunningham-Adams then conducted an on-site examination of the frescos. She found that they were impacted by environmental factors such as shade, light, moisture, and mildew, as well as wear and tear from human contact. Most notably, the frescos showed signs of seasonal washings that had bleached the surface. Close examination also revealed graffiti carvings.

She took into consideration the current context of the frescos, as part of a functioning summer camp and event site (the campus is owned by Camp Rockmont and is the location for both BMCM+AC’s annual {Re}HAPPENING, as well as the LEAF Festival twice per year.)

Cunningham-Adams advocated for restoration of the frescos to a level that would make them legible once again rather than attempting to bring them back to their original 1944 state. She advised to only do what was necessary to preserve their imagery for future generations and to make subtle changes in the surroundings which may dissuade human interference. For example, a barrier in front of the frescos would prevent the surface from being touched while still maintaining visibility. During the off season, when they were not on view, they could be covered to prevent environmental damage.

While Cunningham-Adams assessed the frescos, campers were curious about what they were and why we were interested in them. Their curiosity shows that, with proper educational outreach, campers could grow to truly appreciate the significance of the artwork in their midst. Cunningham-Adams suggested the use of educational signage at the pylons as well as the entrance to the Studies Building as a way of informing campers and visitors. While it seems small in comparison to the scientific and aesthetic conservation that will be done on the surfaces of the murals themselves, this is also a crucial aspect of the process. Without proper preservation, conservation will quickly be lost.  

Following Cunningham-Adams’ assessment, we have decided to move forward with this conservation project using a two-pronged approach: 1) we will contract two conservators to conduct the restoration process, bringing the frescos back to a more legible state and 2) we will take measures to protect the frescos into the future; this can include educational outreach and physical barriers that allow visibility during the on season (Spring/Summer), and coverings to preserve the surface during the off season (Fall/Winter).

The Charlot frescos may be the last works of art that remain at the historic Lake Eden Campus, commemorating the inaugural Summer Art Institute. Over the years, they have lost their presence, fading into the background of life at Camp Rockmont. This project provides us with the opportunity to preserve them and in the process bring awareness to their significance, giving them an enlivened future at Camp Rockmont and honoring our shared history. We believe that through outreach and conservative restoration, we can encourage campers and visitors to honor the historic and artistic importance of the Charlot frescos. We are launching a fundraising campaign for this project, starting 2018, and will keep you updated throughout the process.* The tenets of these frescos, Inspiration and Knowledge, so perfectly encapsulate the dreams of Black Mountain College. We look forward to future generations discovering the history of BMC, Jean Charlot, and the artistic innovations of Black Mountain College.

 *Donations to this conservation fund can be made online at blackmountaincollege.org/donate.

  • Jean Charlot, "Knowledge" (Left: circa 1944, Right: 2017)

 

Christiana Cunningham-Adams established her independent conservation practice in 1982 after completing an Advanced Painting Conservation Internship at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. Conserving and restoring paintings over the past three and a half decades, she has also traveled widely, consulting and lecturing on painting conservation in the United States, Italy, and South America, and leading workshops in Ecuador and Cuba where institutional training was unavailable. Cunningham-Adams studied art history and conservation in Rome, Italy, culminating in a B.A. Degree from the American College of Rome and a Painting Conservation diploma from the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome in 1980.