New Life for a Legendary Arts School

Classes are being held again on the Blue Ridge campus of avant-garde Black Mountain College

GRANTED, it's not your typical college president's office. But this isn't your typical college. Nor is Marc Herring your typical president. Seated at his desk, he shuffles through a stack of letters from applicants, answers the phone, motions for me to take a seat, and turns down the stereo, which is at present digesting the Brave Combo rock band. He hangs up, introduces himself, and soon we're talking about an all-college field trip to a local junkyard.

His grin says, ``Picture this if you can'' as he explains in Texan idiom, ``The students and teachers extracted from it a ton of steel, drug it to the highest point up the side of the campus, and started erecting a sculpture. There are extraordinary works happening.''

``Happenings'' like these are what Black Mountain College is all about. It's teaching and learning in a holistic manner - ``of the hands, heart, and head,'' explains the 28-year-old college president. What comes of projects like the dump trip is everything from exploring the boundaries of one's own creativity and preconceptions to learning fundamental conservation practices and physics.

Until the fall of 1987, Herring had never thought of reopening the college, which had closed some 30 years ago - a renegade school for the arts tucked away in this sleepy village in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. (``Think Mayberry,'' says Herring, referring to the North Carolina setting of ``The Andy Griffeth Show,'' a TV sitcom from the '60s.)

A multimedia artist with a background in arts administration and management, Herring developed the idea while working on the production of a play down the road in Asheville. ``I found Black Mountain College abandoned out here like a junk trailer in the woods,'' he recalls.

``People didn't really seem to care about it, which I thought was a great disgrace and indignity,'' he continues. ``Many [locals] denied that it had ever existed.''

But there can be no doubt that it did. From 1933 to 1957, Black Mountain College was a progressive (some would say radical) retreat for the avant garde in art, literature, music, and dance. The list of faculty and students from those days is studded with the names of people who have since become waymarkers of American culture: Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Agnes de Mille, Harry Callahan, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Nonetheless, Herring realized from the outset that a new college could not simply name-drop itself into existence, even if it was located on the same historic campus on the shore of Lake Eden.

Despite the accomplishments of the ``stellar alumni,'' as he calls them, he has stood by his own conviction that ``it's important for us to establish our own credibility and to grow on our own merits. The easiest thing to do here would be make the documentary and produce another coffee table book. We've chosen to have a school.''

The debut session in the spring boasted 17 students. Herring expects enrollment to grow to between 40 and 50 students, maximum.

The classes available this spring included: Outsider Art (a survey of folk and marginal art), Post Modernism and Its Critique, Futurology, Creative Writing, Mythology as Creative Process, Marginality and Culture, and Painting Explorations, among others.

There were also a number of shorter workshops, for example History of Fishing: Tight Lines, which carried the following description in the course catalog: ``Gold hooks fashioned by the ancient Egyptians, the beginning fly fishing techniques created by Isaac Walton, the modern day art of fly fishing and fly tying, introduced by famed Catskill fisherman Theodore Gordon, folktales and poems, will give us a point of departure. Students will take a lighthearted look at Robert Travers' notion of `trout madness,' and a more serious approach to the Native American art of spearing and netting in the Pacific Northwest and Trout Unlimited's desperate fight to save America's waterways.''

True to the original Black Mountain College form, there are no grades, no credits, and no rules per se. (``Rules?'' asks Herring. ``No, I don't have any rules. Just be polite, act right, and don't stop the party.'') The college is not accredited, nor does it seek to be.

Students and faculty live cooperatively, cooking their own meals and cleaning up after themselves, as well as maintaining the campus.

They are here to learn in an atmosphere of electric creativity - where, it is hoped, the spark may fly from artist to poet to dancer. This is a school for the self-disciplined and the self-motivated.

Deirdre McKenna was one of the spring session's students. She's a recent high school graduate whose preparatory work here at Black Mountain College will probably lead to further study at a more conventional college or university.

That scenario makes a lot of sense to Herring. He also envisions students leaving their studies at other institutions for a term or so and coming to Black Mountain College to be in an ``unconditional, nurturing, relaxed setting that doesn't have a competitiveness to it.'' He continues, ``Here they can continue to grow and learn, and then go back to that program refreshed.''

A great strength of the new Black Mountain College lies in its faculty. Herring has assembled a group of talents who, for the most part, proved their enthusiasm for the undertaking by cancelling other engagements at the drop of Herring's hat in time to teach the spring session.

Stephen Moore is a painter who has exhibited in galleries in and around Washington, D.C., and has been a visiting artist/lecturer at Tulane University, the University of Mississippi, and Connecticut College. Besides teaching, he was continuing work here on his own vivid and intense series of paintings based on cotton bales and tornadoes.

For Greg Edmondson, a recent Fulbright fellow in Germany and a sculptor whose primal carved wooden figures are fashioned with chainsaw and chisel, being away from the traditional university was an inspiration in itself. He says, ``Without some of the facilities of larger universities to rely on, we have to lean on our own imaginations much harder.''

So far, news about the college has been spreading by word of mouth through the arts community in the United States and abroad. Herring has received letters of interest from as far away as Bangladesh; one man heard of the college in the Argentinian underground.

And there have been some 30 responses so far from former faculty and alumni. (In all, approximately 1,200 students attended the college between 1933 and '57). The letters are a mixed bag, with some very sharp criticism, but a good deal more curiosity and interest in Herring's revival.

A number of people associated with the first college have expressed interest in returning to take classes or teach.

The criticism centers on the idea that the first college was established under unique circumstances that cannot be replicated today and that the new venture should be called something else. But Herring insists that the name ``was chosen out of respect,'' and that times today are unique, as they were then.

``During the time of the first Black Mountain College there was war, famine, chaos,'' he says. ``Today we have war, famine, chaos. There are still plenty of refugees, refugees from our own system.'' He invites his critics to come and see for themselves what is going on. ``They seem to want to live in the past,'' he says, ``which is odd, being former futurists....'' For more information about Black Mountain College, write to the institution at P.O. Box 445, Black Mountain, NC, 28711.

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