The magic of Black Mountain: a craft pilgrimage to Asheville
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Perched between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, the small city of Asheville has attracted artists, makers and independent thinkers for centuries. This is notable because the city, set deep in south-east Appalachia, is remote even today. Explanations for the region’s magnetic appeal remain elusive; those attempting to do so often invoke the sort of clichéd New Age jargon – ley lines, crystal energy – used to explain the attraction of creative seekers to places such as Tulum and Bali.
Asheville was known as a healing place as far back as the late 1800s, when the then-town flourished as a wellness destination. It drew socialites from New York, among them Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt, who suffered from bouts of malaria. After visiting with his mother, the introverted, art-collecting George Vanderbilt started, in his 20s, buying up what would eventually total more than 100,000 acres of land. The sprawling estate became the site of his lifelong obsession: the Biltmore, a 250-room, four-storey French Renaissance-style castle, inspired by the châteaux of the Loire Valley, which he designed with the celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt and the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted.
The construction of the Biltmore took six years; for Vanderbilt, though, the estate was a never-ending passion project-in-progress, a gesamtkunstwerk of his treasures: thousands of leather-bound books, many first editions; Renaissance-era Flemish tapestries; an ivory and walnut chess set once owned by Napoleon; and one of the greatest collections of John Singer Sargent portraits in the country. The making of the estate not only brought innovative design talents such as the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino to the area; it also sparked the establishment of furniture and textile industries here. Vanderbilt’s socially progressive wife, Edith, helped to subsidise a craft-education programme that trained locals in traditions of woodworking and weaving. Known as Biltmore Industries, in its heyday it employed more than 100 workers, and sold fine wool to several presidents.
While the Biltmore – still the largest privately owned estate in America – certainly gave the town a gilded sheen, it was the Black Mountain College that conferred on Asheville its aura of the avant-garde. One of the world’s most influential and progressive art schools, it was founded in 1933 by controversial educator John A Rice, along with four colleagues and several students, who established it on a YMCA campus about 16 miles outside Asheville proper. A new experimental model of education devoted to nurturing the “complete” person, with a farm embedded at the centre of its architecture, the College taught creativity and humanism alongside sustainable manual labour and traditional craft. Rice hired as teachers several key Bauhaus-movement figures who had fled persecution at the hands of the Nazis, among them Josef and Anni Albers; the architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius was a frequent guest lecturer. They were eventually joined by John Cage, Willem de Kooning and other ground-breaking artists. Black Mountain is where the futurist Buckminster Fuller raised his first large-scale geodesic dome and where Merce Cunningham’s dance company was born. Many alumni – Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Ruth Asawa, to name a few – went on to become giants of the contemporary cultural scene. Others stayed for years, eschewing the pursuit of a paper degree in favour of a loftier agenda to completely reinvent society. “We have to rebuild our world,” wrote Anni Albers in her Black Mountain essay, still processing the horrors of Nazi Germany.
That included, in the mid-1940s – a decade before segregated schools were ruled unconstitutional – much heated dialogue, both internally and with leading African‑American scholars such as Zora Neale Hurston, about integrating black students. In the summer of 1944 the musician Alma Stone Williams was invited to attend the school’s Summer Music Institute; she was one of the first African-American students to integrate openly in a white college in the South.
More than 60 years after the Black Mountain College closed its doors in the 1950s, an impressive number of modern-day makers and artists still live in and around Asheville to this day. Each, in their own way, shares Albers’ drive to remake the world. Despite its rapid growth in the late 20th century, the city still feels charmingly independent and intimate. In its buzzy downtown, many of the buildings are two, or at most three, storeys; every other space seems to house a craft gallery or an artisanal bakery. Craft beer, too, is a Thing; at last count there are more than two dozen of them, with names such as Wicked Weed and Wedge, a brewery that’s also a hangout for potters.
At the East Fork ceramic factory, I met Connie Matisse, energetic and charismatic in a fire-orange jumpsuit. She and her husband, Alex, who have both lived in the area for more than a decade, launched their tabletop-wares company together with the ceramicist John Vigeland at the end of 2016. The minimalist plates and mugs, sculpted with a satisfying heft and washed with jewel-hued glazes, have achieved such cult favour that East Fork often sells out new launches within minutes. Alex’s heritage is notable: his great-grandfather was Henri Matisse, his step-grandfather Marcel Duchamp. He claims that that imposing legacy kept him from becoming a contemporary artist. But from an early age, he says, he was fascinated by clay, as material and medium; in his late teens he moved to rural North Carolina to apprentice with the British maker Mark Hewitt, known for his decorative Japanese-inspired wood-fired pottery.
The Matisses, who have two children together, are as interested in crafting a sustainable, humane business that supports local community as they are in designing the most beautiful mug in the Carolinas. “This is a moment when it’s important for all of us to look under the hood, as a society and as entrepreneurs,” Connie Matisse says. Alex adds, “We are trying to create a business model that feels true to how we want to live.” During the Covid-19 pandemic, East Fork has continued to grow: in addition to a 16,000sq ft space in the centre of town, they are moving part of their operation into another nearby facility that is about double the size; once it is allowed, they plan to open up a wine bar in their store on West Walnut Street.
What the Matisses are to Asheville ceramics, Karie Reinertson and Rob Maddox are to the area’s design and architecture scene. Via their studio, Shelter Collective, they focus on projects that spark collaboration between local makers; one of their highest-profile in the area to date is a tiny house in the woods about 10 minutes outside the city. Called The Nook, it’s owned by Mike Belleme, a local photographer, whose remit to the Shelter Collective was to create a space in which guests would be completely immersed in local craft – multiple objects and products, from bowls to liquor made from the black walnut trees that grow all around the property. More recently, the Collective brought together eight female textile-makers to create a massive fabric chandelier commissioned by the Center for Craft, a non-profit think tank and gallery in downtown Asheville. Reinertson and Maddox came to the region because of its history as a locus of creative and social change-making. “From religious groups to artists, this area has drawn people [who harbour] the urge to build their own universes,” says Maddox. He and Reinertson – together with John Vigeland of East Fork and Emma Allen, the founder of organic botanical skincare line Everyday Oil – have purchased several adjoining plots of land just outside town; plans for their own experimental project, a sort of modern craft commune, are in the offing.
Marilyn Zapf, the Center for Craft’s dynamic young assistant director and curator, posits that Asheville’s reputation as such a fertile ground for contemporary makers and experimental communities is largely down to the remarkable number of progressive craft schools in the area. Besides Black Mountain there is Warren Wilson College, which also teaches farming and craft; the fledgling Cabbage School, an experimental summer programme founded by textile artist Jessica Green; and the renowned Penland School of Craft, which was founded in 1929 by the teacher Lucy Morgan.
Originally conceived to employ locals as well as preserve local craft traditions, over the past few decades Penland has become an internationally renowned artistic retreat, open to anyone who can pay for one of its one-, two- or eight-week immersive courses focusing on everything from glassblowing to weaving. In lieu of a staff, there is a constantly rotating cast of artists and thinkers to teach a range of topics and techniques; Penland is also known for its deep diving, three-year-long artist residencies. “Many of the artists and makers who live in the area have studied or taught at Penland at one point or another,” said the school’s communications and marketing director, Robin Dreyer, as we toured the campus – a hodgepodge of more than 50 structures ranging from log cabins to contemporary studio spaces embedded on a hill amid birch trees and open fields. After conversations with several students and teachers, I began to form the impression that Penland is as much a spiritual retreat as it is a centre for study. “Coming here can be really transformative for people,” said Dreyer. “It’s such an intense engagement of the mind and materials without distraction. We are really trying to support people to engage in a creative life.”
One afternoon, I drove out into the hills to a small community improbably called Bat Cave, to visit the craft artist Michael Sherrill. Sherrill, who has frequently taught at Penland, moved here in the ’70s; over the years he, like many before him, created his own small universe in the Appalachian semi-wild – a complex of farm-like buildings, one painted cobalt blue, another with silver siding that he calls the Drawing House. This is where he produces his extraordinary work, unique both in its beauty and the labour-intensiveness of its production: delicate sculptures of porcelain, glass and bronze that reproduce floral forms. Sinuous, ethereal, dynamic, they are like John James Audubon engravings extrapolated into 3D. My fascination with his work, I realised, had to do with Sherrill’s singular dedication to inventing complex techniques and tools, over many years, so as to be able to replicate the flora and fauna around him. The final result – a branch from an elderberry tree, or a rhododendron plant – is not in homage to his own skill or even the artistic process but to nature itself. Seeing his work is like witnessing those plants for the first time. “I am compelled by [that] sensation,” he says. “Like waking from a sleep and being surprised by all that surrounds me.”
As I drove back into Asheville, negotiating a slim road carving through forested hills, passing several picturesque farms, it occurred to me that one of the reasons the region has been such fertile ground for creative people and communities is a literal one. The area’s mountains – hundreds of millions of years old, some of the oldest in the world – are rich with valuable natural resources beyond just clay and wood; the Great Smokey Mountains is the most biologically diverse of all the US National Parks. Equally important, as Sherrill pointed out to me, were women such as Penland’s Lucy Morgan or Frances Goodrich, the founder of Allanstand Cottage Industries in the late 19th century, which eventually evolved into the very influential Southern Highland Craft Guild, laying the rich foundation for Asheville’s current booming artisanal scene. Both of them had laboured at the revival of traditional craft as a means to improve the lives of locals – projects, and an ethos, that continue to inspire newcomers today. So to solely credit the area’s natural magnetism would be to sell these visionaries short. Asheville’s unique energy has long since become a human one, generated by the individuals and communities that shape and maintain it with captivating skill.