Black Mountain:
Was It a Real College Or Did We Just Make It Up Ourselves?
by Mary Emma Harris, Featured Speaker

26-28 September 2014—UNC Asheville, Asheville, NC

 Editor’s Note:
Mary Emma Harris is Chair and Director of The Black Mountain College Project. Hailed by Charles Alan Watkins as a “well-researched and handsomely illustrated history” of BMC, Ms. Harris’ groundbreaking study, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Massachusetts Institute for Technology Press, 1987), is an indispensable guide to the school’s history and curriculum that weds its praxis to its ideals and founding mission. This work continues to inform and inspire, serving as foundational text not only for scholars in the field but also for all interested in experimental education in America. Ms. Harris welcomed conferees at the sixth annual gathering at UNC Asheville with a formal talk, which formed the basis for this article. Lauding the school’s democratic ideas and progressive curriculum in the visual, literary, and performing arts, she celebrates the state of BMC studies, rethinks Black Mountain College’s history, and challenges us to see our creativity and innovation as part of the school’s legacy.

“Beginnings,” Anni Albers wrote, “are usually more interesting than endings” (52). Those of us writing about Black Mountain College and leading new institutions are pioneers. There will be those who come after us who will continue our work, but just as the experience of the founders of Black Mountain College or those who built the Studies Building was different than that of those who came after, our experience is unique and the responsibility great. When I first heard about Black Mountain College in 1968, I was starting with a blank page. I did not know who was at the college, when or why they were there, or what they did. The educational ideals were a mystery. There were no books to which I could turn. Pioneers had preceded me. Robert Moore at East Tennessee University had curated the first Black Mountain College exhibition. His papers are now at The Western Regional Archives of the State of North Carolina as a part ofThe Black Mountain College Project Papers. Martin Duberman had started his research, but his pioneering study of the college, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community (E.P. Dutton) did not appear until 1972.

I did not grow up in an academic or artistic family. I was one of six children raised by a single parent on a small tobacco farm in Eastern North Carolina. We received Life Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. I handed tobacco and worked a number of jobs. I attended Greensboro College, a small Methodist college, before enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In many ways BMC has been my education—my “higher learning.” Several years ago a BMC student confronted me with a daunting question, “What, Mary, if you have done all this work and nobody cares?” “That being the case,” I responded, “it has been well worth the journey.” As I write, there are exhibitions being organized in Europe and the United States, concerts in rehearsal, books in press, a movie being made, dissertations and theses in progress. Humbly, I am reminded of Josef Albers’ advice to youth:

 Calm down
what happens
happens mostly
without you. (n.p.)

Personally, I yearn to unbox my own research and to return to my work as an independent scholar. There are books there to be written. There is information that should be digitalized as a resource for those interested in the college. There is an extensive chronology with thousands of entries: a year-by-year roster of faculty, students, staff and family; the Advisory Council and the Board of Fellows; the officers of the corporation; plays, concerts and exhibitions; visitors; publications; and other material. Already I begin to mull over in the back of my mind the best way to put this together and how it might be a living resource with contributions and additions from scholars over time. I am beginning to explore possible institutional connections, which will insure its survival long after me. I only hope that I have enough years left to complete this work and for a few adventures.

Thankfully, many hard-working individuals and institutions with devoted staffs and volunteers are working diligently to preserve the history of BMC. By increasing our understanding of its complexity, its historicity, its richness, and its legacy, they make the past speak to us today. While there is much more work to be done, there is much to celebrate:

  • The Western Regional Archives of the State of North Carolina, which has the largest collection of Black Mountain College documents in the world. Its holdings are the foundation for any study of the college. I am so very pleased that the collections, previously housed in Raleigh, have found their way home to Western North Carolina. I would specifically like to thank Heather South for her untiring efforts to help researchers from everywhere. I would also like to thank Theodore Dreier, Jr., who is here today, and his sister Barbara B. Dreier, for the donation of their parents’ papers to the Western Regional Archives;
  • The Black Mountain College Museum+Arts Center located at 56 Broadway in Asheville, which is dedicated to exploring the history and legacy of the world’s most acclaimed experimental educational community and offers a wide range of exhibitions, a video archive, research materials, and a selection of books and other materials for sale. Its collections, exhibitions and programming are expanding our knowledge and understanding of the college and providing Asheville with a new and different voice in the arts. A recent grant from the Windgate Foundation is both witness to and guarantee of the longevity of BMCM+AC that has enabled it to expand its programs and facilities. This institution that helps sustain the arts in Asheville was the brainchild of Mary Holden Thompson, founder of the museum. Connie Bostic, Alice Sebrell, Brian Butler, and many others continue to make her vision a reality;
  • BMCS, The Journal of Black Mountain College Studies, an online peer-reviewed publication of BMCM+AC, which provides scholars with a coherent voice for the publication of their work. We thank its co-founders, Brian Butler and editor Blake Hobby, Alessandro Porco, who serves as its associate editor, and all who have dedicated their time and talent;
  • The Asheville Art Museum for its commitment to a comprehensive Black Mountain College Collection, which includes art of Black Mountain College students and faculty. The collection, an ongoing project, complements the BMCM+AC collection. I’m grateful to Pamela Myers and the museum staff for making it possible for me to bring into a museum collection a large body of material that needed a permanent home. The AAM, located at 2 South Pack Square, is a community-based, nonprofit organization established by artists and incorporated in 1948. Its focus is on Twentieth and Twenty-first Century art of the Western North Carolina and the Appalachian area.
  • The Black Mountain College Project (BMC Project), of which I am Chair, as it moves forward in the realization of its goals. Two years ago the BMC Project donated its collection of primary documents—photos and negatives, journals, student notes—to the Western Regional Archives, expanding significantly its holdings. The art works in the BMC Project collection were donated to the Asheville Art Museum. Presently, I am preparing 400 interviews and transcripts for an archive. Once the work of the BMC Project is completed, its assets will be donated to another institution, and the Project will happily dissolve, declaring, “Mission accomplished.”
  • The many private and public archives housing documents of those who taught and studied at the college: The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, The University of Connecticut in Storrs, The State University of New York at Buffalo, The Getty Research Institute, and Stanford University, among others. John Andrew Rice’s papers are at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina;
  • Scholars and artists worldwide who are doing careful, enlightening work on specific aspects of Black Mountain College and on the individuals who taught and studied there;
  • Those brave souls who taught and studied at Black Mountain for their courage, their wisdom, and their imagination. They have been my friends, my mentors, my critics and my teachers over many years.

Through the efforts of local institutions and others like them, Western North Carolina is now the epicenter for Black Mountain College studies.

It is important for those institutions and individuals in Asheville to remember that Black Mountain College settled near the Village of Black Mountain as a matter of chance. It was here that it put down its roots though it remained throughout its history an outsider. Almost a century after BMC’s founding, Asheville has embraced the college as its own. The Asheville institutions and all of us who seek to preserve and document the college’s history and influence should remember that these collections and the college’s legacy are held in trust. No individual or institution can claim ownership. The college was Black Mountain and Asheville. It was also New York, Boston, Berlin, San Francisco, Cambridge, Dessau and Frankfurt. It was John Cage and Lou Harrison. It was J.S. Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Virgil Thompson, Sir Edward Elgar and the Early Music. The college opened its doors to people of many nationalities, ethnicities, political beliefs and races. Its legacy should not be encompassed by a narrow provincialism that limits its history and our understanding of its significance.


“Was That A Real Poem
Or Did You Just Make
It Up Yourself?” (n.p.)

In his essay “Was That A Real Poem Or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself?,” Robert Creeley muses on a number of issues regarding poetry and the poet: What is a poem? Why does one write? The title is a question posed to another poet at a college reading: “Tell me,” the student queried, “that next to the last poem you read—was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself?”

In his own search for an answer, Creeley turned first to his trusted 1935 edition of the The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English and was horrified to find “’elevated expression of elevated thought or feeling, esp. in metrical form….’” He then turned to the more recent American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969) and found “the art or work of a poet” which he defined as a real “cop-out.” The definition Creeley articulates avoids both the formula and the cop-out. It is descriptive. It is complex. It requires the reader or listener to think and to respond: “It is equal wonder,” Creeley writes, “when the rhythms which words can embody move to like echo and congruence. It is a place, in short, one has come to, where words dance truly in an information of one another, drawing in the attention, provoking feelings to participate.” This definition requires that the individual listen, respond, and participate. It is nuanced and comprehensive. A poem is a “place.”

Was Black Mountain College a “real” college, or was it simply made up by a group of incompetent, unaccredited, idealistic, unemployed, disaffected, disillusioned, and disenfranchised professors? What is a “real” college? Following Creeley’s example, I turned to an early edition of Webster’s Dictionary in which Black Mountain was listed as a college in the end-materials along with other colleges. Here was one credential. I then turned to my well-worn Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1965). There “college” is “An institution of higher learning [emphasis added] that gives the bachelor’s degree in liberal arts or science or both.” The definition goes on to describe it as an institution that offers certain instruction, the faculty and students, and the buildings where the instruction takes place. Until the 1950s BMC did not grant degrees, and when it did, they were not accredited.

In an essay “Fundamentalism and the Higher Learning” in the May 1937 issue of Harper’s Magazine, John Andrew Rice, BMC founder, addressed that very issue of “higher learning.” He challenged the assertion of Robert Maynard Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago and creator of the Great Books curriculum, that students should be introduced to “a common stock of fundamental ideas” gleaned from a select group of books deemed to be the “classics” or that a “fixed curriculum based on eternal truths” was a meaningful education (587; 594).

“’In general education…,’” Hutchins had posited, “’we may wisely leave experience to life and set about our job of intellectual training.’” Rice points out the disparity between “logic” and “truth.” Simply reading and thinking, he observes, does not prepare the student for life. He asserts that experience is essential to education, but that is the quality of experience that counts. Language, he notes, is only an “approximation” of thought. Feeling plays a role. In Nazi Germany, he warns, well-educated people with their emotions raised by a “house-painter” turned to “savagery.” “While intellection was being sharpened and polished, savagery was going its way, waiting for a chance. If we think this cannot happen here we are fools” (588-90).

The “higher learning” Rice suggests is “to follow the Socratic direction to teach the young how to become, not how to be, philosophers and to show them that in their quest for certainty the only thing on which they can rely with assurance is the experience of the quest.” “Education,” he proposes, “instead of being the acquisition of a common stock of fundamental ideas, may well be a way of learning of a common way of doing things, a way of approach, a method of dealing with ideas or anything else. What you do with what you know is the important thing. To know is not enough.” Rice’s Plato class was less about Plato than it was about the Socratic method. Students were challenged to examine their assumptions and beliefs as a step toward the process of becoming philosophers (592; 595).

Rice concludes his essay with a statement which for years puzzled me: “When every day offers the adventure of seeking the word for the meaning rather than the meaning for the word, when action and word merge and become one, then shall we have the higher learning in America, and not before” (596). Robert Creeley understood that the definition for the word should not determine the meaning (or experience). Instead the experience should define the word.

The issue today is the possibility that the “real” Black Mountain College is being lost in the frenzy of excitement over the more luminous events in its history. Almost fifty years ago when I first heard about Black Mountain College, it had for the most part disappeared from memory. A few in San Francisco and some in the Massachusetts area knew about the college through the Black Mountain Poets, which carried its name. Frequently, those in education dismissed it as an interesting but failed experiment in American education that had no lasting influence. Now in the second decade of the Twenty-first Century, its influence is undeniable. For most, however, the college is associated with a few names—John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller—all of whom were there for only a few months as guest faculty members. Unfortunately, its educational ideals are less known and often reduced to a few clichés: No grades, work program, farm. The danger today is not so much the unconsidered dismissal of the college as it is an over-inflation of the small modest school and a distortion of its history. The danger is that the educational ideals and the dynamics of the small community, the foundation on which the college thrived, are being oversimplified or ignored.

I encountered the myth early in my Black Mountain journey. When I entered the art department at Washington University in St. Louis and asked about a former student from Black Mountain College, a student working in the office responded, “Oh, Camelot!” It is all too possible to romanticize BMC, to forget that there was magic but also there was a dayliness to classes, farm work, study and committees. It is all too easy to forget the struggle each year to raise money and pay bills. It is all too easy to forget that all this was not easy.

In his novel The Longest Ride (2013), Nicholas Sparks writes of the life-changing experience of Ira and Ruth, a young couple who visited the college on their honeymoon in the summer of 1946. Ruth exclaims in wonder, “‘…to think that it was all there, at a small college in the middle of nowhere! It was like finding….’” And Ira finishes, “’A treasure chest!’” “‘It was Abstract Expressionism!’” (194). In an effort to enhance the experience of the honey-mooning couple, Sparks places Willem and Elaine de Kooning at the college in the summer of 1946 along with “Ken and Ray and Robert,” when, in fact, that summer only Ray Johnson was in attendance, and Abstract Expressionism was not introduced until two years later. Nevertheless, Ira purchased for Ruth six Abstract Expressionist paintings one each by Ken, Ray, Elaine, and Robert and two by “Elaine’s husband.” (This is probably the only instance in which Willem de Kooning has been referred to as “Elaine’s husband.”) Even in fiction to recreate the historic facts of the college to enhance a story is to create a double-fiction and to distort our perception of the “real” Black Mountain. Likewise, for scholars to condense the college’s history into a few luminous events, which actually were scattered over a period of twenty-four years, is to perpetuate the Camelot myth (197).

Last year when I conducted a tour of the Blue Ridge Assembly buildings, we entered a large auditorium with a capacity of hundreds. A representative of Blue Ridge noted that college concerts and performances took place there. When I commented that, in fact, they took place on an improvised stage in the dining hall, in the lobby of Lee Hall, or on occasion in the gym, someone noted that there would have been townspeople attending. In fact, twenty townspeople would have been a large turnout.

Is the “real” Black Mountain College relevant today? The issues of the arts in education, of testing, of the relevance of manual activities in a digital world and of the role of faculty and administration are contemporary themes. Recently, on the news a school was featured where the teachers, tired of having directives handed down, took over the school. As at Black Mountain, decisions are reached by consensus. Learning is project-based. The school principal remains though she does not have an office. In his New York Times 14 August 2014 editorial, “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities,” Nicholas Kristof notes how parents of students in the humanities are concerned that their children will be “dog-watchers for those majoring in computer science.” He argues that “the humanities are [not] obscure, arcane and irrelevant” because it is through the humanities that we come to understand the world.

A poem is a place; likewise, the “real” Black Mountain College was a place. It was a complex landscape— vibrant, interactive, torn by conflicting personalities and ideals, and often dull. It was a “made-up” world affording innumerable higher learning experiences that redefined the possibility of what a college might be.

 Works Cited

Albers, Anni. On Weaving. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1965. Print.
Albers, Josef. Poems and Drawings. New Haven: Readymade Press, 1958. Print.
Creeley, Robert. “Was That A Real Poem Or Did You Just Make It Up Yourself?” Sparrow 40. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, January 1976. Print.
Kristof, Nicholas. “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities.” New York Times. 14 August 2014. Print.
Rice, John Andrew. “Fundamentalism and the Higher Learning.” Harper’s Magazine 174 (May 1937): 587-97. Print.
Sparks, Nicholas. The Longest Ride. New York/Boston: Grand Central Publishing, 2013. Print.
Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: G Merriam Company, 1965. Print.
Sparks, Nicholas. The Longest Ride. New York/Boston: Grand Central Publishing, 2013. Print.
Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: G Merriam Company, 1965. Print.