Author's Note: In 2013 I wrote an article about the 80th anniversary of Black Mountain College, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of Black Mountain College + Museum. Reprinted below is the first half of that article, which includes a feature interview with Alice Sebrell, Program Director, Black Mountain College + Museum:
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Black Mountain College: Art Innovation and Education
By Max Eternity
“BMC was a crazy and magical place”
Lyle Bonge, Student 1947-48
How one responds to crisis often determines and confirms tragedy or triumph. Surely, John Rice knew of this when he led the charge to open an innovative new college in Asheville, North Carolina, some 80 years ago, called Black Mountain College.
“Black Mountain College was interested in educating human beings to become citizens of the world” says Alice Sebrell, “so that’s why things like grades, and in many cases, degrees, were not as important as this deeper level of engaging the world—contributing to it, and being an active citizen.”
The college is now a museum, and Sebrell is its Program Director.
Founded in 1933 by John A. Rice, the concept of the Black Mountain College drew from the philosophical principles of education reform as realized by American intellectual and psychologist, John Dewey.
As the school was being born, simultaneously Nazism was swelling in Europe and the United States was adrift in the Great Depression. Responding to the US crisis, and in his visionary commitment to uplift the economy and the morale of the American people, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Public Works Arts Project—a government program for artists that was later folded into and expanded on in the creation of the Works Projects Administration (WPA).
In the US, Roosevelt was championing the arts, while in Germany Adolph Hitler shuttered the Bauhaus in Berlin, Germany—a small art and design school founded by Walter Gropius that ultimately produced many of the world’s greatest creative, including Marcel Breuer, Joseph and Annie Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, Lily Reich and Mies Van Der Rohe. Among other things, shuttering the Bauhaus signaled the end of Germany’s Weimar Republic renaissance.
Along with Jews and those with alternative gender and sexual identities, Nazi Germany launched a brutal oppression against European artists and intellectuals who did not conform to the ideals of the state, and thus were deemed degenerate.
Of those who escaped, many of Europe’s best and brightest became students and teachers at choice schools in the United States, including Walter Gropius, who became department head of the architecture graduate program at Harvard University.
Josef and Anni Albers, who both taught at the Bauhaus, were subsequently on the faculty at Black Mountain College.
In the 1940’s, Albert Einstein was on the Board of Directors at Black Mountainwhile Jim Crow apartheid laws were being fully enforced throughout North Carolina and much of the nation, Black Mountain College included African-American artist, Jacob Lawrence—who is best known for “The [Great] Migration series,” which tells an epic visual story of the Black exodus from the South to the North—in its faculty.
Though lesser known and smaller in size, many art historians consider Black Mountain College a parallel and peer to the Bauhaus, as it was equally as progressive and innovative as the Bauhaus. And during its 24 year lifespan, the school attracted and produced some of the greatest intellectual and creative talents of the 20th century. A partial listing of these figures include Josef and Anni Albers, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Kenneth Noland, Franz Kline, Arthur Penn, Ruth Asawa, M.C. Richards, Francine du Plessix Gray, Robert Motherwell, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and many others.
Black Mountain College closed in 1957, yet decades later, and in this new century, the creative spirit and genius of Black Mountain College continues to inform of humanity’s greatest potential in art and education.
Black Mountain College (Asheville North, Carolina)
“I think that the direction that education has gone in recently where it’s all about testing and memorization is just diametrically opposed to what was going on at Black Mountain College“ says Sebrell, and in the following interview, Sebrell speaks further about the inspiration and lessons learned from Black Mountain College:
Max Eternity: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Black Mountain College?
Alice Sebrell (AS): I think is probably a visual…because I’ve worked on so many projects that have to do with the visual aspect of the college—the artist and their work, or photographs of the college, or just walking the properties.
ME: And is there a common thread in this visual imagery?
AS: What comes up is the longing to have been able to experience it in person, rather than second hand. For me it’s more of a yearning for what appears to have been an incredibly intense, creative and charged experience for everyone who lived through, and those sorts of experiences don’t come along every day.