Saturday, October 04, 2008

Celebrations for the Fall

(Click on the image for a larger view)
Harvests are in, or soon to come. The air cools, here in the northern part of the orb, as the planet grandly wobbles in its orbit, taking us away from the sun. Nights grow longer, match the days, and then surpass them. Wondrous October, Asheville homeboy Thomas Wolfe's birth month (Happy birthday, Tom!) and the first full month of his favorite season, arrives. Oh, lost, and by the wind grieved ghost ... It's a season of endings and portents, when we look again, as we move inward, to the life of imagination and spirit to carry us through dark holy-days.

Two events in early October helped to get us off to a good start on the journey. They even happened on successive nights; perhaps, for all their apparent differences, they were two services in the same ceremony, the same cycle. One addressed the relation we folk have to the world, while the other offered a look at some complexities and struggles in other realms of human culture.

On the evening of October 2nd, Asheville's Blue Spiral 1 Gallery hosted the publication celebration of The End of Eden, a collaboration between two of our mountain world's rightly celebrated creators of complex imaginative forms, each working here in his own medium to find synergy. The book combines essays on what we call "the environment" by Tuckasegee's Thomas Rain Crowe and sketches and paintings by Celo artist Robert Johnson.

Poet/editor/translator Crowe, long active in the WNC environmental community, is probably best known now for 2005's Zoro's Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods; it won the Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction for the state of North Carolina and the citation as Best Book of Nonfiction on the Environment from the Southern Environmental Law Center in the year of its publication. His work has been a frequent topic here.

Johnson has also been active for decades in the environmental movement, and it was through their mutual involvement in environmental groups and projects that author and painter came to know one another personally, and to know one another's work; they've now been friends, Crowe says, for twenty years. "When I decided to put together a collection of essays, articles, and newspaper columns for a book, I approached him with the idea, pitched him on it, and he thought it could be a good project." Johnson then worked with Crowe to select the paintings and sketches included in the book; all are of vistas and locations he visited and studied in the southern Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains.

The book takes its title, The End of Eden, from what Crowe sees as the threat posed to mountain communities, to the way of life they represent, and to traditional farming communities around the world, by current models of development.

It's too late now to catch the reception (confession:I missed it too, though I spoke with Robert and Thomas afterwards), but Johnson's work from the book will be up at Blue Spiral through October 16th.

Last night, October 3rd, Asheville's Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center hosted the opening reception for "The Shape of Imagination: Sphere", the first of three shows over the next year that will feature the work of women at our area's very own, very extraordinary, Black Mountain College. Both the men and women who emerged from the college, whether they'd been faculty or students, worked to challenge and change the prevailing approaches to the visual, literary, and performative arts in the middle of the last century. Male Black Mountaineers, like Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, to name just a few of the best known, gradually had profound impact on the aesthetic worlds within which they worked. The women of the college, though, often faced a more difficult path to impact and recognition simply because they were women; some of them, as you might suspect, went on to challenge the dominant sex and gender stereotypes that confronted them.

Novelist Francine du Plessix Gray, author of 1976's Lovers and Tyrants, for example, created female characters who were (and are) dynamically alive as sexual beings, and who bring womanly critical intelligence to bear on the world in which they move.

Ruth Hershberger, in her Adams Rib, published in 1948(!), directly addressed stereotypes of male and female roles, ranging her analysis along a frontier that stretched from biology to law and myth. It reminded me, when I recently encountered it, of Simone de Beauvoir's now-classic The Second Sex (some of the book is at the second link), a wonderful investigation of similar territory published in French just a year later. My girlfriend in the eleventh grade gave me a copy of de Beauvoir's book in 1961 -- hoping, I think, to help me learn (successfully, I can at least hope) not to be a benighted sexist -- at least not always, given the strength of gender training -- like most of her other male classmates; it was a revelation. Thanks, Susie, wherever you are! Hopefully, Hershberger's book provided as useful an orientation to a few other hapless males of the species.

Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, who went from the college into the bohemian world of New York's visual artists, wrote a frank, warm, very endearing memoir that she titled Notes of a Nude Model and other pieces; in it she writes fearlessly, charmingly, intelligently of her work as an objectified Other for artists, of her sexual adventures (and misadventures), her enduring relationships - determined, as she says in one piece, that she and her son should act as "celebrants of life in our own religion."

Not surprisingly, the women of the college who were visual artists explored innovative approaches in their work, just as the men did. The current show features work by Elaine de Kooning, Ruth Asawa, and Pat Passlof, among many others.

This afternoon (I'll be headed there as soon as I post this) a panel chaired by Black Mountain College scholar Mary Emma Harris will provide (no doubt) several answers to the question "What was it like to be a woman at BMC?" Joining Harris for the panel will be alumnae Patsy Lynch Wood, Alma Stone Williams, Vera Baker Williams, Cynthia K. Homire, and Marie Tavroges Stilkind; they were students at the college between 1942 and 1954. It should make for a fascinating afternoon.

It'll be held at UNCA's Humanities Lecture Hall.

The Center will offer additional programming in conjunction with the Shape of Imagination exhibits throughout the 2008-2009 season.

If You Go:

What: Work from The End Of Eden
Where: Blue Spiral 1 Gallery, 38 Biltmore Ave. in the heart of downtown Asheville
When: Thursday, October 2nd through October 16th.
Admission is free
More information: Contact The Blue Spiral Gallery at 828-251-0202.

What: The Shape of Imagination: Sphere
Where: Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 56 Broadway, Downtown Asheville
When: October 3rd through February 14, 2009
Admission: $3 / free for BMCM+AC members + students with ID.
More Info: (828) 384-5050 or
online at

What: What was it like to be a woman at BMC?
Where: UNCA's Humanities Lecture Hall
When: October 4th, 3:00pm. A reception will follow with refreshments by Green Sage Coffeehouse & Café.
Admission: $7 / $5 for BMCM+AC members + students with ID
Co-sponsored by the UNC-Asheville Women's Studies Program + History Dept.
Free for UNCA faculty + students
More Info: (828) 384-5050 or
online at

Update, 5 October: As you might expect, the panel members proved deeply insightful and articulate, never mind a cane or two among them. I recorded their discussion yesterday, and should be able to post audio of the event within a few days.

This post was originally written for the Asheville arts and culture publication Rapid River, but didn't appear there for reasons ... well, who knows? Did I mention Mercury is retrograde? Oh, well. I've patched up a phase or two, added some links, and modified verb tenses when writing of events that had already entered the gone world of the past by the time I posted, but not otherwise fiddled with its (somewhat) who-what-when-why-where journalistic style.
Robert Johnson's "Arthur's Pass" is featured on the cover of The End of Eden. If you're looking for its location here in the Smokies, though, you'll be disappointed; it's in New Zealand. Johnson did the painting on a trip to that fair nation in 2007.

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