Eighty years ago, my mother graduated from Black Mountain College in North Carolina. She was one of the few students in this small, experimental college to actually graduate, though the fact that the institution was never accredited caused some issues when she began to apply for work beyond the home in the 1970s.
No matter. BMC was a unique, character-shaping environment that left a deep impression on all who studied and worked at its bucolic campus, beneath the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Asheville. The college, which existed from 1933 to 1957, placed the arts at the core of its curriculum, with a particular focus on how a specific material or medium—paint, clay, fiber, paper, wood, concrete, photography, dance, music, poetry, and more—defines and informs the act of creating. The place was a hive of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization and produced a generation of extraordinary talents, taught by some of the most influential artists and thinkers of the 21st century.
My Mom, however, was not an artist. She was a psychology major. But she also helped to build BMC’s Lake Eden campus, its second home, as part of the school’s work collective. Collaboration was key to the BMC ethos, perfected in the work program. So was democratic governance by students and faculty. Among Mom’s fondest recollections of her three years at Black Mountain was learning carpentry, pipe-fitting, masonry, and electrical wiring to help build the Studies Building and the college’s farm buildings.
I was immersed in this inspring environment over the past weekend at a conference about Black Mountain, which I shared with our younger daughter. It was a fascinating deep dive into scholarship about BMC, its students and faculty and staff, its unique educational philosophy. We met some truly wonderful people who welcomed us into their circle with open arms. It was also a needed respite from the chaos gripping the world, even as grim headlines tap-tap-tapped on my mind throughout our stay.
Somehow, despite all its many financial struggles, BMC managed to flourish through the Great Depression and World War II as an avant-garde island in the Jim Crow South. The McCarthy era of Red-baiting, as well as changes in GI education funding, eventually spelled its demise. But the cultural and intellectual contributions, as well as the mythology of Black Mountain, live on. I will be processing what I’ve learned for a long time. Already, though, I feel the gravitational pull toward a BMC way of thinking and doing. All good.
Here are some images of our visit to Asheville, the weaving exhibition at the heart of the conference, the former campus, and the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains. Enjoy, y’all.