Ruth Asawa. Anni Albers. Black Mountain College and recovering progressive education history.

Artist Ruth Asawa at Black Mountain College.

Two recent exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago included women who had spent time at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Weaving Beyond the Bauhaus features the work of women textile artists from the German art school, founded by Walter Gropius, that existed from 1919 to 1933 when it was shuttered by the Nazis. The school combined crafts and the fine arts.

Among the women featured in the AIC exhibit was Anni Albers who spent time at Black Mountain College. The exhibit runs until February.

Last week I went to see the another show at the AIC. In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury.

This show also features the work of women and textiles, including the work of Anni Albers of the Bauhaus.

One of the things that I was aware of was that with the rise of fascism in Germany and the closing of the Bauhaus, many of its faculty, along with other refugees, fled to the United States as immigrants.

One of the institutions where they found a home was Mies van der Rohe’s Institute of Design in Chicago.

Many of the students from the Institute of Design were among the original arts faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago where I attended and had the good fortune to learn from.

I can trace my arts education genealogy back to the Bauhaus.

Over the years I keep reading about Black Mountain College as one of the places that became a refuge for artists who fled fascist Germany.

And as a place that tried to practice the educational pedagogy of John Dewey.

Black Mountain College was founded in 1933 by John Rice near Asheville, North Carolina. It  closed in 1957.

Black Mountain should be of interest to anyone who considers themselves a progressive educator.

From the book, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957.

What most distinguished Black Mountain from other schools was the vital role that the arts played in the college’s democratic aims. Both Rice and Dewey valued the creative and emotional aspects of human development and believed that art—or the “art experience”—was essential for nurturing an individual’s capacity to participate in a democracy. The arts, according to Rice, are “least subject to direction from without and yet have within them a severe discipline of their own.” An art experience, as Dewey outlined in Art as Experience (1934), was about discovering and respecting the integrity of one’s materials. Black Mountain College literature echoed this sentiment: “Through some kind of art experience, which is not necessarily the same as self-expression, the student can come to the realization of order in the world; and, by being sensitized to movement, form, sound, and the other media of the arts, gets a firmer control of himself and his environment than is possible through purely intellectual effort.” The theory is that the process of making art hones not only observation but also judgment and action, so that students who acquire intelligence through art both notice what is happening around them and develop individual responses to it. In Rice’s words, “The artist thinks about what he himself is going to do, does it himself, and then reflects upon the thing that he himself has done.” By encouraging both self-reflection and the translation of thought into action, pedagogy at Black Mountain began with art to end with democracy.

Among the faculty and staff at Black Mountain College were Josef and Anni AlbersCharles OlsonRuth AsawaWalter GropiusRay JohnsonRobert MotherwellDorothea RockburneCy TwomblyRobert RauschenbergMerce CunninghamJohn CageBuckminster FullerFranz KlineWillem and Elaine de Kooning, and Mary Caroline Richards.

In looking into the history of Black Mountain I found this interesting account of the school’s struggle with racism as an institution in the Jim Crow South.

Much of the history of progressive education has been lost to current educators.

We need to recover more of that history.

One thought on “Ruth Asawa. Anni Albers. Black Mountain College and recovering progressive education history.

  1. Great post! If you’re ever in Asheville, please pay us a visit at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, our next exhibition “Question Everything! The Women of Black Mountian College” opens this January including works by Albers, Asawa and many more alumni and faculty.

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