Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Black Mountain College Hits the Silver Screen

If there's any subject of local provenance that's been deserving of serious documentary coverage for decades, Black Mountain College qualifies. With bells. And an Oak Leaf Cluster. And now, Lights! Camera! Action! ... Well, all that's already happened, and April offers up a virtual visual feast for anyone interested in Black Mountain College and the artists who shaped it - and made it, strangely enough, the truly world-shaking, head-changing, perception-shaping phenomenon that it became.

First to hit the screens will be premiere of the film by Cathryn Davis Zommer and Neeley House: Fully Awake. Six years in the making, the film will at last premiere at a special screening at 7:00 pm on Thursday, April 19th, at The Fine Arts Theater. The film covers notable events at the college, of course, including the creation of Buckminster Fuller's first geodesic dome in 1948, and John Cage's multimedia happening in 1952, in which Merce Cunningham, Charles Olson, and others also played significant roles. The documentary's primary focus, though, is on the unique educational style that prevailed at the college, one that encouraged exploration and collaboration among those so fortunate as to wander through its doors. Fully Awake weaves interviews with students, teachers, and historians together with black and white archival photographs to tell the story of a school that might have existed only 24 years, but still played a major role in the world far beyond the Black Mountains that enfolded it. Indeed, its spirit is still kicking around.

A reception with the filmmakers and BMC alumni will follow the screening.
Tickets for the whole event are just $25, and the proceeds will benefit the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, downtown at 56 Broadway. The Center's film offerings have a history of selling out, but this time advance tickets are available at the Center, or by phone at 828-350-8484.

More information on the film is available at the Fully Awake website.

On other screens, the Asheville Art Museum continues its year of programming honoring Black Mountain College by bringing two more treats to town in April. On April 27th, at 6:00 pm, painter Ray Kass will speak about and show slides of John Cage's New River watercolors. Innovator that he was, of course, Cage's are not exactly your standard watercolors. No wispy panoramas. Cage set out to open the process of his painting to chance, in the same way he sometimes used chance procedures in the composition and performance of his music. Dr. Howard Risatti, writing on Kass' website explains Cage's procedure during his 1988 residency this way:
...stones collected from the New River were sorted into three groups according to size, which were separately numbered; numerous and varied brushes were divided into two separately numbered groups; likewise, feathers to paint with, colors and washes, and papers were also divided and numbered. In this way, chance procedures using pages of random numbers that were now generated by a computer program could be used to determine the specific materials utilized for each painting (e.g., which painting instruments, what type of paper and which colors, how many washes, which stones to paint around, where to locate the stones on the paper).

Cage, like many of his Black Mountain fellows, several of whom (including, for example, poet Jonathan Williams) also used chance procedures in their own work, was not interested in the illusory self as source of creative activity, as the conventional twentieth century paradigm structured that transaction. Instead, Rissati notes,
... although he was interested in expression, he was not interested in self-expression. From Zen Buddhism he came to believe that to truly experience the world around oneself one had to free the mind and the self from control by the ego. Ego, according to Zen, is the one barrier to experience because ego, which is connected to emotion, taste, memory, and desire, fixates on pre-conceived expectations and aesthetic possibilities, on the already known. In this way it prevents exploration and experience of the new. Chance, on the other hand, was a way to rise above control by the ego into new and unexplored territory. This could happen because once an overall format for a work was consciously created, chance allowed unexpected things to happen; chance allowed musical or visual "events" to occur, without the ego's intervention at the conscious level of taste or the subconscious level of desire. The artist then would be in a new situation which required a conscious, disciplined response. Chance, when understood properly, still involved discipline, discipline to not do just anything, but to free oneself from, as Cage said, "likes and dislikes" in order to explore and experiment. For Cage, chance was to be used as a discipline and not, as some people allege, as a way of giving up choices. "My choices," he said "consist in choosing what questions to ask."

Over the course of his four residencies, Cage experimented not only with using natural objects as compositional subjects, but also with using giant brushes so large he actually had to get inside them to paint, and then with using fired and smoked paper as the basis for his paintings. Risatti describes the preparation of the paper for his 1990 residency:

To fire and smoke the paper, assistants... had placed crumpled newspaper on dampened printing paper. After igniting the newspaper, they immediately threw a wool printing blanket over the flames and passed the entire ensemble through the printing press. The result was that the paper retained bits of the newsprint and the gray smoke from the fire.

Paper for a later work was prepared by using straw instead of newsprint; the straw provided a wider range of color and its stalks left traces on the paper which connected the painting, as the rocks had, to the natural world.

Ray Kass' paintings have been widely exhibited and he has received numerous grants and awards, including individual artist's grants from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is Professor Emeritus of Art at Virginia Tech, and founder and director of the Mountain Lake Workshop where Cage created the works Kass will address. If you'd like to get inside the head of John Cage for an hour, this presentation should provide as real an opportunity as you're likely to have on this plane.

The afternoons of the two days after Kass' presentation, April 28th and 29th, at 2:00 pm, the Art Museum will screen Josef and Anni Albers, Art Is Everywhere, shown earlier this year at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, to round out the April banquet of cinematic treats. If you missed the earlier showing, here's your second chance.

See you in front of the silver screen.

What: Premiere of Fully Awake
Where: The Fine Arts Theater
When: 7:00 PM, Thursday, April 19th.
Admission: $25 for the film and reception.
More information:, or call 828-350-8484.

What: John Cage's New River Watercolors with Ray Kass
Where: The Asheville Art Museum
When: 6:00 PM, Friday April 27th
More information: or call 828-253-3227

What: Josef and Anni Albers, Art Is Everywhere
Where: The Asheville Art Museum
When: 2:00 PM, Saturday, April 28th and Sunday, April 29th.
More information: or call 828-253-3227


This article originally appeared in somewhat different form in Rapid River for April, 2007.

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