Between 1933 and 1957, Black Mountain College offered students an experimental education that “resemble[d] no other college in the U. S.,” according to a 1939 Time magazine article. At the same time, Warren Wilson College grew from a farm school to a junior college and inched closer to becoming a four-year institution. For most of Black Mountain’s roughly 24-year run, both schools were located in the same valley, but evidence suggests their link goes beyond geography.
According to interviews with people living and working at Asheville Farm School in the early 1930s, Bernhard Laursen and students on the farm crew occasionally assisted Black Mountain College with its farm. As one would imagine, employees and students from each institution crossed paths intentionally over the years. Historical documents, newspapers and interviews help shed some light on these moments. Michael Thorpe, a Warren Wilson history and political science major, is focusing his senior thesis on the relationship between the two schools’ farms. Thorpe’s research has uncovered bills of sale between the schools for farm animals, and discussions with eyewitnesses indicate farm manager Bernhard Laursen and students from Asheville Farm School, which became Warren Wilson College, assisted Black Mountain College as it developed its own farm.
Retired Warren Wilson College librarian Barbara Hempleman recalls inviting Black Mountain College students to watch movies in the campus chapel. She would also take Warren Wilson students to dances and visit her faculty friends at Black Mountain College. The leaders of both schools would sometimes attend the same events in Asheville, and in 1945, Robert Wunsch, Black Mountain’s drama and English professor, gave the commencement address at Warren Wilson College, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.
In the years since it closed, Black Mountain College’s focus on the arts as core to a liberal arts education has influenced numerous institutions, including Warren Wilson College. Ellen Bryant Voigt, founder of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers, has even noted the appeal of bringing her pedagogical invention to the same valley Black Mountain College once inhabited. In an interesting twist, the person who helped deliver that program to Warren Wilson, former President Ben Holden, knew one of the most famous Black Mountain College professors – Josef Albers. Both men worked at Yale University in the 1950s and ’60s. Upon completing his portfolio, “Interaction of Color,” Albers signed a copy to Holden. Holden donated the collection to Warren Wilson College, and it is deepening the link between the two colleges.
Fittingly, Warren Wilson College’s Elizabeth Holden Gallery, which is named for Holden’s wife, is hosting an exhibition based on concepts Albers championed. Under the direction of professors Julie Levin Caro and Lara Nguyen, 30 students have created a 16 x 16 foot floor sculpture conceived by artist Leigh-Ann Pahapill.
Titled “The Interaction of Color | The Dematerialization of Form,” the exhibition opens Thursday, Oct. 27, from 4:30-6:30 p.m. and is on view through Tuesday, Nov. 22. Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center also hosts a roundtable discussion about the installation Friday, Oct. 28, at 7 p.m.
During his 2013 commencement speech, MFA graduate and former North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti said, “In many ways, Warren Wilson has donned over the years Black Mountain College’s lofty banner.” While the statement is subjective, the schools’ shared history and educational achievements are real. It’s a truth Holden’s signed copy of Albers’ portfolio will reinforce as it is displayed during the latest gallery exhibition.