Black Mountain College Project 



Introduction to the Sunley Project

  Architecture Class. Don Page (left), A. Lawrence Kocher (right). Courtesy: North
Carolina State Archives, Black Mountain College Papers.


Description of the Study by Robert Sunley
*   Letter to the Students
*   Guidelines
*   Brief Biographies of

*   Brief Biographies of
    Faculty Mentioned in
    the Memoirs


    Statement by Robert

The artistic process as
    a major goal.

*   Individual, active
    anticipation was
    fostered but not

*   Focus on really “seeing”
    and “thinking” for
    oneself, not on the
    production of art.

Self-direction, self-
    discipline, initiative,
    development of the
    whole person....

The arts were diffused
    throughout the
    education ....    


Letter to Former Faculty and Students


As a former student of BMC, you will hopefully join us in a new project – “The Early Years at BMC: Student Experience in Experimental Education (1933-43).”  

Why this project? Recently a prominent article in the New York Times referred to BMC as “an art school” that called Albers from Germany to be its first director! Though erroneous as to facts, the article shows that BMC has become widely known for being an art school or community, where many notable artists taught or studied. The evolution of BMC from its early years into that later, famous center for the arts has been well traced, first in Duberman’s book (Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community) andMary Emma Harris’ (The Arts at Black Mountain). 

Our project is not aimed at minimizing or refuting their work, but rather at emphasizing the early years as remarkable in themselves for experimental education.

In their books, Harris and Duberman stress the impact of educational theory and practice on the faculty at  Black Mountain. They give an account of what the faculty or at least some of its most dramatic personalities like J.A. Rice and Josef Albers said were the college’s aims and problems. Relatively little attention was given to what the students expected from the college and what kind of education they experienced. The focus of these books was often centered on crucial events, particularly those of a disruptive nature – schisms, personality conflicts among the faculty and the constant struggle of the college to survive etc. These events were certainly of importance, but often more traumatic for the faculty than for most students. Our project is not an attempt to recover memories of “what really happened.” We are mainly concerned with the college as an experiment in higher education and its influence upon individual students.

How can you participate? By helping preserve more of the total educational heritage of BMC. BMC was originally founded as a liberal arts college – with faculty, students, curriculum; not as a “community” or commune, nor as an art school. What we are asking is: what was different, what was experimental, what had lasting value for your, what was ephemeral, what role did the college community of people play? What is still relevant?

We are seeking responses to these and other questions posed in the enclosed guidelines. True, it has been a long time since we were at BMC and memories may be diminished. On the other hand, we all now have a long perspective based on many subsequent life experiences. Some of us came from traditional colleges to BMC, some went later to such colleges; and most of us have gathered impressions over the years about other colleges, then and since. Some have had “community” experiences of various kinds.

In those early years, 1933-43, BMC was for many a beacon of hope in the dreary landscape of college education. Hopefully, we can distill our some of the essence of what made BMC outstanding in the early years, much as in later years it gained fame in somewhat different ways.

We are asking you to write down your responses to some or all of the questions in the guidelines (enclosed) – but not to be limited by them. Or, you can talk in a tape recorder, and we can have the tape transcribed. (We plan to interview a few by phone or in person, limited in number because of the time needed; if this would be best for you, let me know.) We will pull together all the responses, impressions, conclusions, and key points. We will also obtain comments and review by consultants. A survey report will be made with copies to participants and appropriate organizations.

If eventually some form of publication becomes likely, we will get back to you for permission to use any specific parts of your response, with credit to you.

A word about myself – my interest in starting this project stems from the great influence BMC had on me. I came to BMC after I spend a year at a fairly traditional college (Oberlin) and stayed at BMC for three years (1936-39). Some years later, after being in the army, I got a BA from the New School for Social Research, then a graduate degree and further advanced training in social work and psychiatry. Over the years I worked first in publishing, writing, and editing; then as a therapist, agency executive, designer of innovative programs, teacher, trainer. In the past few years, I have had several books and articles published, written institutional histories, conducted oral history projects.

From the beginning of this project, I have called extensively upon Harold Raymond (BMC, 1938-1942), professor of history (now retired), and he will continue to contribute to the project. Several others who read and commented on the guidelines in draft form make up an informal sponsoring or advisory committee.

Also, if you know any former students (1933-43), who are not on the list sent out by Mary Emma Harris, and their addresses, please let me know so we can contact them. The names on her list represent less than half of those who were there, and it would be important to increase the number and range of responses.

Robert Sunley




Formal Aspects of the

   Class Size 
   Junior Division  
   Senior Division  

Methods of Teaching

   John Andrew Rice 
   Josef Albers 
   Erwin Straus 
   Robert Wunsch 

Personalities of Faculty
John Rice  
   Josef Albers 

Outside the Classroom
   In General  
   The Work Program 
   Visitors -
   Lectures, Concerts 
   Informal Interchange