This story bursts at the margins with names all connected to the great and short-lived experiment in arts education known as Black Mountain College.
I list these names in hope of demonstrating that the spirit of study, imagination and labor, born in an artistic community just outside Asheville, NC, pervades and persists not only in the minds of a small group in the know, but also in a national dialogue about the relevance of art to our everyday lives, especially in New Mexico.
I learned about Black Mountain during graduate school, from a professor who had studied under the poet Robert Creeley, after Creeley had left Black Mountain. My professor, David Matlin, continued the Black Mountain tradition in his creative writing and literature courses, having us respond creatively to the works of 19th century poet William Blake, for instance, rather than analytically.
Students wrote poems and short stories; they made films; they performed music and dance; and they created visual artworks off the themes, characters and ideas of the great mystic poet. Outside of class, Matlin taught me that even physical labor could be a product of imagination. He learned these virtues from Creeley—Black Mountain College students and instructors worked the grounds as a requirement of residency.
When I walked into Books of Interest, the house-turned-bookstore on Aztec Street here in Santa Fe, I honed right in to the book The Arts at Black Mountain College. I excitedly told my baby mama about the significance of the school and my connection to it, then read off a list of faculty and students: Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Robert Duncan, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Stan Vanderbeek and Jose Yglesias.
Black Mountain College operated from 1933-1957, closing under the pressure of debt. Faculty and students scattered across the country looking for work and refuge.
My arms full of other books, I hesitantly returned The Arts to the shelf, when a man who had been seated patiently in a corner of the room stood and pulled it off. “Did you know about the Black Mountain connection to New Mexico?” he said, admitting he’d overheard me.
The man introduced himself as Jerry Rightman, a local tour guide specializing in art tours, and proceeded to tell me about the 25 or so Black Mountain artists who came to Taos straight from North Carolina.
What’s more, he said, The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos holds an exhibition on those artists, most predominantly Oli Sihvonen. Rightman said I should go see it, then held out the book and asked if I’d changed my mind. “Would you like to buy this?” he said, already knowing the answer. And I returned the rest of the books in my stack.
The following weekend, I ventured to the Harwood, delighted to find the foyer filled with candid photos and test shots of Black Mountain artists by Black Mountain artists.
The school came alive in my mind as a place where people tested the limits of imagination in the midst of a cynical time, defined by the Great Depression and World War II.
I experienced this delight before I ventured into the room holding Sihvonen’s enormous geometric abstractions, or the second floor where the works of more of Black Mountain’s poets, painters and sculptors hung out for hours-long immersion. A video there also tells the Taos-Black Mountain story.
When you visit the Oli Sihvonen and Black Mountain College exhibition at the Harwood, be sure to give yourself ample time to absorb it. That particular school of experimentation keeps coming up.
Oli Sihvonen and Black Mountain College
Through Feb. 5, 2012
The Harwood Museum of Art
238 Ledoux St. Taos
Books of Interest
311 Aztec St.
Santa Fe Tour Guide
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