Monday, January 12, 2009

Kicking Up a Storm: Notes on the Spirit of Black Mountain College Festival

It's such a fundamental insight that it's become a truism of post-modern thought: different eyes looking at the "same" phenomenon will see different events. Each of us, after all, has partial vision, and our perceptions are defined by our own literal and figurative perspectives, including our pre-existing bents and concerns. Any review of the Spirit of Black Mountain College festival ought to rely on multiple eyes. This ought to be a conversation. Oh, well. What follows is just my take.

Notwithstanding sideways rain and a hurricane-driven gas shortage that had me checking out every station I passed to see if it might have working pumps, the festival was a hoot, a veritable storm of imaginative energy in its own right. For me, since I'm a poet, the readings alone would have been worth the trip, from almost anywhere. Not even the Museum + Arts Center's 2002 Under the Influence festival, as wonderful as it was, brought so many Black Mountain-inspired poets together to read and share their work. Galway Kinnell (summer session, 1947) opened the festival in fine form Thursday night, and Lee Ann Brown, Lisa Jarnot, Thomas Meyer, Ted Pope, Thomas Rain Crowe, Black Mountain alumnus Michael Rumaker, and I all read in various combinations throughout Friday and Saturday. The two primary venues for our readings were the University's Belk Centrum (a large, circular performance venue, complete with stage), and the Hickory Museum of Art, perhaps a mile away, which hosted readings and performances in its spacious upstairs gallery. Michael Rumaker frequently brought his memory, insight, and plainspoken eloquence to bear on the question of what constitutes the active legacy of the college, and provided great readings of his poetry, fiction, and the fine memoir of his experiences in the shadow of the Seven Sisters, Black Mountain Days. It's no doubt appropriate that he, among the last surviving members of that crew of writers who found their various ways to the college during Charles Olson's time at its helm, should have provided many the weekend's moments of incisive awareness. The dude was on.

It was great to have the opportunity to immerse myself again in the zany sinuous complexities of Cilla Vee - Life Arts' John Cage-inspired "Modus Operandi." The classically-trained musical renegade Elisa Faires provides spontaneously composed music and sound textures for the company, and Claire Elizabeth Barratt provides dance and movement. With the help of The Professor (actor Greg Congleton), they interpreted random text prompts selected by chance from words provided before the performance by the audience, one word a noun, one an adjective, one a color, the last a phrase that defines a location. So: effervescent magenta paramecium in a swamp. Or: tragic gelid-blue fingernail in a chimney. Compose that! Try dancing that! And they did. Their performances can be intense, and intensely funny. At their frequent best, it's riveting to be part of the celebration, and let your mind surrender to bafflement when confronted with the sheer multi-modal complexity of it all. Their two shows at the festival displayed them in fine form. The delightful irony of their premise, of course, is that it's all presented as a "scientific" exercise. It's definitely a thorough exploration of their very own modus operandi.

Lenoir-Rhyne faculty joined in the occasion, and John Cheek's versions of the Cage works he chose for performance, were, shall we say, note-perfect - even the always contemporary 4'33" was played with enviable panache. And it was fun to see the young Lenoir-Rhyne Playmakers engage Ed Dorn's Gunslinger, Book I, in costume, forty years after it had allusively defined its lively intellectual context.

The festival combined history with its creative performances. In fact, Mary Emma Harris, certainly among the most deeply learned of the college's historians, spoke several times during the proceedings, and her Saturday afternoon talk on "Black Mountain College and the Arts" usefully dug into the college's Bauhaus roots to shed light on its complex history. I've been a student of the college now nearly a decade, and a student of the college's poets much longer than that, but I always learn from Mary Emma's thorough and lucid work. And the tour she led through the old college campus on Sunday was an extraordinary and unique presentation. It featured not only the vast lore she had at her mind's fingertips, but Michael Rumaker's wonderful color commentary (sometimes delightfully full-color, if you catch my drift), as well.

And there was much more.

Perhaps a simple accounting of all the events packed into the three days would serve to give some sense of the scope of the festival, and suggest the pace and energy of the event, but it would take pages of text or pixels. Best just refer you to the schedule, still online .

The Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center will be featuring audio (and hopefully video) recordings of many of the festival's events on its website as they become available. No doubt they'll offer some different perspectives on the phenomenon that blew through Hickory back in September.

In conjunction with the festival, the Hickory Museum of Art opened two shows featuring artists from Black Mountain College. One drew on collections of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the Asheville Museum of Art, and the Hickory Museum of Art's own collection, and featured two and three dimensional works of visual art by BMC faculty and students, most of them created during their tenures at the college. It included paintings, ceramics, prints, drawings, photographs, and furniture by Anni Albers, Leo Krikorian, Ben Shahn, Robert Motherwell, Elaine de Kooning, Jacob Lawrence, Buckminster Fuller, Hazel Larsen Archer, and thirty others.

A smaller show in the Museum's Entrance Gallery featured a more extensive collection of the photographs of Hazel Larsen Archer, which provide an irreplaceable record of the time, the place, and the group of people who truly changed the world they found.

Two years of planning prepared the field for the three days of the festival, and the harvest proved, I think, bountiful. For a school that's been closed now twice as long as it was open, Black Mountain, through the work of poets and artists exploring the ground its faculty and students opened up, still stirs up a lot of dust.


Tim Peeler posted the photo to FaceBook. Back, left to right: me, Thomas Meyer, Lee Ann Brown, Greg Congleton, Ted Pope; front, Mary Emma Harris, Michael Rumaker, Thomas Rain Crowe, Lisa Jarnot.

Once a year or so, the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center publishes, or used to publish, a newsletter for its members. Sebastain Matthews, who was editing it in 2008, asked me to write something about the Spirit of Black Mountain College festival held at Lenoir-Rhyne University that fall. These, then, were my perceptions.

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