Over the course of the fall semester (2017), St. Andrews University recaptured the halcyon days of a long-closed institution of higher learning as it reprised its 1974 Black Mountain College Festival.
The festival began on Aug. 26, with multiple events — featuring more than 30 artists, poets, scholars, musicians, dancers, and inventors — scheduled most weeks until it closed on Nov. 19. All events, performances, and presentations were free and open to the public.
Black Mountain College opened in 1933 near Asheville. Its founder, John A. Rice, had left Rollins College in Florida to establish a college that placed the study of art at the center of liberal arts education.The college attracted guest lecturers the likes of Albert Einstein and Aldous Huxley, and became identified with German expatriates and the Bauhaus movement.
“It was an arts-centered college, so that artists taught how to paint, musicians taught how to play an instrument, and poets taught how to write poetry, which today seems normal but then it was not,” said festival co-host Ted Wojtasik, a member of St. Andrews’ liberal and creative arts faculty.
“It was really apprenticeship for the arts and mentorship for aspiring students. They didn’t have grades, they didn’t have tests, it was sort of a process school.”
Black Mountain College closed in 1956, and a single building now used for a summer camp is all that remains of its physical campus. But its legacy is alive and well.
“It was a short thing but it just had this tremendous impact on the arts,” said Wojtasik.
Its alumni include Bollingen Prize-winning poet Robert Creeley, artist Josef Albers, composer and pioneer in music theory John Cage, National Medal of Arts recipient dancer Merce Cunningham, and inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller — all of whom contributed to St. Andrews’ original Black Mountain College Festival in 1974.
On that occasion, Fuller, who was later presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, created a geodesic domes, for which he became famous, on the St. Andrews campus.
St. Andrews recently introduced a Black Mountain College Scholarship for students, and used the fall’s semester-long festival to revisit the college’s principles and highlight St. Andrews as a spiritual successor.
The festival included three art exhibitions in the Vardell Art Gallery: Jonathan Williams’ Outsider Art Work from Aug. 26-Sept. 23, Photographs and Tapestries of Dobree Adams with poems by Jonathan Greene from Sept. 30-Oct. 21, and Basil King Art Work from Oct. 28-Nov. 19.
There were six performances given by Douglas Dunn and Dancers and Helen Simoneau Danse, in addition to a full roster of poetry and prose readings, musical performances, discussion panels, and lectures.
“Guests were chosen in that they had some type of influence by the Black Mountain College spirit, either directly or indirectly, and then we have some historical figures,” said Wojtasik.
“The original 1974 festival happened over two months and it was every weekend or every other weekend. Just through the excitement of inviting people and people wanting to be part of the festival we filled it up rather quickly over the entire fall semester.”