Black Mountain College Project



Apprentice Teacher

1941-Summer 1947

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Mary Gregory




The following memoir was delivered on the occasion of the opening of a Black Mountain College exhibition, curated by Mary Emma Harris, at Bard College in 1987,

Don’t you think it’s quite impressive that we are talking about Black Mountain College in 1987? Still talking, wondering to a certain extent disagreeing – militant or wistful....

We speak with pride of the impact on the American scene. We can still look at the art, and while looking at it, remember the people who produced it. It is wonderful that there is this tangible evidence all put together in an exhibit.

Thirty years is a long time, and those of us who remember Black Mountain College or are living reminders of what we knew there are rapidly slipping away.

I am asked to talk with you about the work program. There was a work program at Black Mountain College. As in everything we did, the work program was subjected to all kinds of scrutiny and interpretation, positive and negative, and as is almost always the case, there was an element of truth in each explanation or definition.

Some felt that it was here that leadership skills could be developed. Some say manual labor as a leveler, rather like chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. There were those who thought it exploitation to ask people paying for an education to wear themselves out hauling coal.

We had graduate architectural students sent to us to get practical experience in building. We did build several buildings designed by faculty and students. We did have a farm which supplied meat, milk, vegetables. We did help with maintenance chores, worked in a print shop. There was a woodworking shop where we built furnishings, lab equipment, utensils for parties and small houses for pigs.

Our labor was needed.

We worked closely with local professionals, carpenters, a farmer planter. Maintenance genius. Taught us – saved us from being too theoretical or even too self-satisfied.

The Bauhaus is credited with including crafts in their perception of the artist. Albers in our classes asked us to look at what man had made. Not selectively or chronologically but widely. We looked at pottery designs, bridges, tools, buildings. Paintings. At how things went together, at how things grow. It was exciting. He asked us to figure out what made each idea work. He asked us to look and look but in looking to trust and use our perceptions creatively (and neatly).

It isn’t a great jump to become fascinated by how each job we do – be it being a farmer, a woodworker or musician or machine operator – calls for the same scrutiny, the same excitement in finding how all these skills (or needs) may be used to make one’s own contribution, perhaps even in a new way.

It is one thing to have a glimpse of the possibilities, but it is another to be in a place where this insight may be tried and even used. But best, all-needed.

It is tremendously exciting to be in an environment where you are called to use all of your faculties in every direction, to be for a moment the true Renaissance man. Creator, theorist, administrator, experimenter, student, teacher, laborer. To be in an institution that is willing to be totally responsible for what it believes and what it does.

I think it is a mistake to think of the “work program” at Black Mountain College unless our definition of work encompasses all that went on there. The dictionary defines work: “Physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the accomplishment of something.” That says enough.

The college was self-administered without outside ownership or trustees. Students were included in the governing board.

It was asked, from the start that everyone who joined the community be a contributor, not a purchaser. The faculty shared their books. They were the administrator. Raised outside funds. Explained and interpreted, gave concerts or played the piano so we could dance together and forget our struggles.

I suspect that it was in this area that the college was unique: one was asked to give something of oneself.

It is possible to be lost or suffocated in an institution bent on offering everything, apparently needing nothing.

It was indeed a great leap of faith and many were touched by it. They came and were part of a creative, vibrant whole, needed and made alive.

Perhaps, one irony lies in the vulnerability of this organism. To join it and help it grow it is implicit that each new person wait – to see and appreciate what is already there and then, based on that understanding and respect, to move ahead. Conversely, those already there, who made it are required to be open, always clear and ready to answer.

Printed with the permission of Mary Gregory. All rights reserved.