adVANCE! Modernism, Black Liberation + Black Mountain College

Curated by Marie T. Cochran, ACTIVE ARCHIVE resident
Featuring contemporary work by Larry Paul King and Reggie Tidwell
Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center
February 11 – May 14, 2022

The originality of Black creativity could not be recognized when modernism was understood as a purely European and Euro-American tradition and not as the result of a long history of intercultural exchange.

Michelle Wallace

Jacob Lawrence and Larry Paul King, Installation for adVANCE!
Reggie Tidwell, Untitled installation for adVANCE!, 2022
Historians of American art once assumed that African American artists passively accepted the guidance of the masters of modernism and made derivative work as a result. This model, which relies on the societal construct of race, presumes that the European tradition is the subject and African Americans are the object on which it acts. Modernism and abstraction have always been liberating aesthetics for Black artists. Rooted in the modernism of celebrated Black Mountain College instructor Jacob Lawrence, and his colleagues and students, adVANCE! bridges the past and future by celebrating the deeply rooted influence of African aesthetic practices on Western modernism as well as the inherent progressive ideals which flourished from this lineage and persist in our region. 

The city of Asheville is undergoing a transformation that can be seen throughout Appalachia. In 2021, following calls for justice after the murder of George Floyd and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, The Vance Monument (named for Confederate military officer and NC Governor Zebulon Baird Vance) was dismantled from the city center – only a few hundred feet from the entrance of BMCM+AC. These advancements toward social justice resonate through the history of our region. Such actions were foundational to BMC, which hosted the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in 1944, the same year it invited Alma Stone Williams to integrate its student body, and welcomed the Congress of Racial Equality in 1947. It is crucial to acknowledge that BMC’s actions follow in the footsteps of a wide range of Black luminaries including Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “the Father of Black History Celebration,” and James A. Porter, educator and art historian, all of whom took our nation’s democratic ideals from theory into practice. Writing on Jacob Lawrence Porter states, “His art is founded in reality. It includes the vivid moments of actual experience.” (Modern Negro Art, 1943)

As Appalachia moves forward with the hindsight of history, Asheville artists continue to embrace a distinct Black aesthetic of liberation as an antidote to the systemic erasure and misrepresentation of the cultural legacy of people of African descent: Designer Reggie Tidwell commemorates Asheville’s protests and calls for justice undertaken in 2020 during the Summer of Racial Reckoning; sculptor Larry Paul King presents a path forward by embracing abstraction, natural forms, and materials. The work of these artists are what Lawrence may call Humanist: “to be human, to think, to analyze, and to probe. To respond and to be stimulated by all living things.”

Black is everything!

With thanks to the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center Board of Directors; Hedy Fischer and Randy Shull; Dr. Dwight Mullen and Dr. Dolly Jenkins-Mullen; Blue Spiral 1 and Casey Engel; Sue Wilson; the scholarship of John P. Bowles and Julie Levin Caro.

Larry Paul King, Maquette for a Monument. Photo by Jack Robert for Asheville Made.

In the News

Asheville Made, How One Sculptor Rose To The Occasion (Lauren Stepp)

“Marie Cochran is also the curator of the new adVANCE: Modernism, Liberation + Black Mountain College. The exhibition features King’s work but also nods to the now obsolete Vance Monument. Fittingly, King will be producing his own rendition of the obelisk — an Egyptian symbol that was co-opted for numerous Confederate monuments across the South.

King describes the creative process behind his piece, which he’s welding from found hardware-store parts: ‘I thought about all the groups in America that have been put down with a knee pressing against them — Native American tribes, Blacks, Latinos, Asians,’ he says. ‘Then I created a form showing that we rise — we rise and we free ourselves of the pressure.’” 


Early Civil Rights at Black Mountain College

Exposing students to African American culture, engaging faculty in an ongoing conversation on African American culture and race relations, and serving as a model of what southern independent schools might become, Black Mountain College entered a prescient socio-political conversation on the dignity of the human person. While these concerns would soon be dealt with by the U.S. court system, they would not become a pressing national concern until some ten years later in the wake of the Emmett Till murder (1954) and with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling (1954), the Little Rock Nine integration crisis (1957), and ultimately the Medgar Evers case (1962), all catalysts for the civil rights movement. In this way, a small, non-accredited school in Western North Carolina joined a progressive conversation on inclusive education. Here, we find BMC espousing ideals John Dewey furthered in Democracy in Education (1916), another deliberate choice, in addition to the radical way the school granted instructors autonomy, that the school practiced what might be termed true “liberal” and independent thought.

Dolores Fullman photographed by Hazel Larsen Archer

Delores Fullman, photographed by Hazel Larsen Archer.
Estate of Hazel Larsen Archer.

Mark Parks Washington, Georgia Out of State Tuition.
Courtesy of Auburn Avenue Research Library.

Mary Parks Washington (1924-2019) attended Black Mountain College in the summer of 1946. Her artistic medium was what she termed “histcollages,” layered surfaces of paint, drawing, and documentary ephemera. Her works evoke the connection between individual and collective memory, thoughtfully historicizing personal experiences and cultural life (especially that of pre-Civil Rights Black Atlanta) with superimpositions of insurance policies, programs, letters, lists, contracts, and other documents. In the context of narrative, Washington’s work provides a powerful reminder of the centrality of lived experience in the ways history is remembered, constructed, and reconstructed—casting personalized landscapes upon the fixed written word.

In the summer of 1944, music student Alma Stone came to Black Mountain College for the Summer Music Institute, making history ten years before Brown v Board of Education mandated desegregation in schools across the United States. After her remarkable summer at BMC, Alma went on to Julliard, and then returned to her long, distinguished career as a college professor, as she and her husband, Russell Williams, also raised a family. At BMC, the successful experiment in integration led to more students and teachers of color joining the college community over the next few years.

Dolores Fullman photographed by Hazel Larsen Archer

Alma Stone Williams with music student, n.d.
Courtesy of the Williams family.