It’s been more than eighty years since Doughten Cramer was a student at Black Mountain College. The school is long closed, the landscape has certainly changed. And yet, every time I set foot on Black Mountain College’s former Lake Eden campus, I share that same feeling. I become sensitive to everything. But despite the visceral effect of this specific place on a wide range of students, faculty, and even the subsequent admirers of the school that tour Lake Eden today, the importance of environmental stewardship and reverence at the College are often footnotes in its history.
This is at least in part due to the awe that even a partial list of students and faculty inspires. Between 1933 and 1957, Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Olson, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Gwendolyn Lawrence, Jacob Lawrence, Kenneth Noland, Barbara Morgan, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, Jonathan Williams, and Marion Post Wolcott attended or taught at Black Mountain College. Many of these artists are now part of the canon of American art and literature, and it is often the knowledge that many of them lived and worked together in the same place that sparks curiosity about the school.
This is how I first came to know about Black Mountain College. As a young artist from Virginia, the discovery of an experimental art school in North Carolina was meaningful. It proved that there was a path for artistic discovery that lay outside of the cultural centers of New York or Los Angeles, places which seemed all but inaccessible to me at the time. But in museums and art historical texts, it is the names of artists and their finished works that are foregrounded in descriptions of Black Mountain College. Their vast achievements are worthy of acclaim, to be sure, but such a discourse privileges the outcomes of the school and overlooks the time spent there, which is what the College actually valued most. Above all else, Black Mountain College prized process and experimentation. To quote Josef Albers, the first art teacher at the College, “We do not always create works of art, but rather experiments. It’s not our intention to fill museums, we are gathering experience.” And the experiences gathered at the College were a direct result of the convergence of place and pedagogy.2
In terms of place, the College was always situated in Black Mountain, North Carolina, a small town 16 miles east of the county seat of Asheville. This location, in the idyllic foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, provided space, seclusion, and beauty. In 1934, just a year after the founding of the College, photographs of the landscape dominated promotional materials. A pamphlet from 1934–35 titled “Views of and from the College” depicts the first temporary campus at the Blue Ridge Assembly YMCA. The brief text describes its proximity to the train line that ran from New York to Asheville. But the main feature is a fold-out panorama of the Great Craggy Mountains. With no description of the curriculum or faculty, it is clearly the environment that the College prized and would continue to promote throughout the life of the school.