Weaving Art with Life

In 1933, John Andrew Rice founded a private liberal arts school in the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, which was aptly called Black Mountain College. Prior to the school’s founding, Rice was a professor teaching at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He also taught at the University of Nebraska. He was asked to resign from each school due to his polarizing demeanor and his anti-establishment mentality.

Rice’s teaching was inspired by constructivist pedagogy, which is a learning method that is enacted by actively constructing knowledge based on personal and collective experiences. New insights, themes and information are built upon a person’s prior knowledge and experience. In essence, constructivism can be summarized as “learning through doing.” John Dewey, who is notable as an influential proponent of constructivism, asserted that incorporating the variety of experiences and prior knowledge of a diverse populace within a constructivist framework is a necessary step towards establishing and maintaining democracy. Dewey’s pedagogical credo included the notion that the arts were central to a well-rounded education, prompting many progressive educators during the twentieth century to look at artists and modern art for inspiration.

Rice was a steadfast believer in Dewey’s progressive pedagogy and that dedication evoked his fiery passion about educational reform, often putting him at odds with the administration of the schools he taught at. A 1943 article about Rice in Time Magazine opens with the statement, “John Andrew Rice is a maverick among U.S. educators. By his own account, only one man ever understood him—old Philosopher John Dewey.”

Despite his notably overbearing personality, Rice’s vision was understood by many, and it radically transformed the course of art and education. Black Mountain College was not established as an art school, nor was Rice an artist or art educator. However, because he realized the benefits that art has on the overall construction of knowledge, Rice wanted Black Mountain College to be an arts-centered school. This meant that each area of the curriculum would be infused with art theory and practice.

The faculty that Rice put together was a testament to the transdisciplinary utilization of art to teach both creative and critical subjects. To give credence to his burgeoning school, Rice brought on Josef Albers to lead the painting program. Albers was a renowned educator at the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany, which had recently been shut down by the Nazi party. Albers is influential for developing a holistic approach to teaching art based on constructivist principles, as well as materials-based and collaborative learning methods popularized by early childhood educational models. The kindergarten principle of learning by exploring materials and utilitarian occupations was a major influence on Bauhaus’ curriculum (I have written extensively about this connection/lineage, Ex. Art Education: The Gift That Keeps on Giving), and was also evident throughout Black Mountain College’s materials and inquiry-based framework.

Josef Albers’ wife, Anni was also an essential part of the faculty at the school. She also came to Black Mountain with an impressive curriculum vitae as an artist and educator, which included running the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus school and developing a unique perspective for teaching textile arts. Anni Albers’ teaching of weaving blurred the lines between traditional craft making and fine art. She encouraged students to use materials that they found outside of the classroom, suggesting that everything around them could be employed creatively. Other inaugural faculty members included composer John Cage, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham and architect Buckminster Fuller.  

Josef Albers examining a folded paper construction with his students at Black Mountain College, 1946. Photograph by Genevieve Naylor.

Throughout the Black Mountain College curriculum, art was a means for exploration and discovery. It was intrinsic to the daily operations of the school, which in turn carried over into life in general. At Black Mountain, art was considered academic, creative, social and holistic. This lesson was groundbreaking for many young modernist artists who came of age as Black Mountain students. Curator and author Helen Molesworth explains that, “this idea that art wasn’t something you made for an audience, you were both the audience and the maker. And that on any given day, you could be both or either, was essential to this way of thinking about art as not being separate from life, but as art being woven into the fabric of your life” (Quoted in Craft in America, 2019).

Black Mountain College’s legacy is reflected throughout progressive education to this day. It was one of the most formative schools in the history of modern art, which is punctuated by its incredible list of alumni (both students and faculty). It is arguably the most consequential arts-centered school in modern history, along with the Bauhaus school. But most importantly, Black Mountain College taught and exemplified democratic processes of social and intellectual epistemology.

Molesworth (2019) states that “at Black Mountain College, the experiment was ‘what would it mean to teach everyone to think critically,’ which is of course what you’re learning to do when you’re an artist.” Rice’s initial impetus for creating Black Mountain College was not to launch the careers for professional artists, but rather to inspire people to make critical and creative choices about representational issues in their lives. The school embodied what Dewey believed education should be, which is a means for obtaining and spreading democracy. The fact that many of the students at Black Mountain College went on to become famously innovative artists is a happy happenstance (or as art educator Bob Ross would call it, a “happy accident”).

Among the many notable alumni is Ruth Asawa, who was an American artist and educator of Japanese heritage. Asawa truly embraced Black Mountain College’s ethos of art and life being impossible to separate, and her life’s work is clearly indicative of constructivist learning.

Asawa learned Japanese calligraphy, known as shodō at a young age. She and her family lived in rural California on a small farm, run by her parents who were Japanese immigrants. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, the Asawa family was one of the roughly 120,000 American citizens of Japanese background who were sent to internment camps under president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Sixteen year old Ruth found a sense of inspiration within the bleak environment, when she encountered Chris Ishii, Tom Okamato and James Tanaka. They were all animators for the Walt Disney Company, and taught Asawa the principles of artistic perspective through landscape drawing. Spending much of her high school tenure in two internment camps, Asawa showed an affinity for art. Due to lack of resources, art classes often consisted of making art with objects found around the camp. This ingenuity and flexible resourcefulness anticipated her use of non-traditional art materials as a professional artist.

After graduating high school, Asawa was granted permission to leave the camp to study art education at Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin. However, she was unable to graduate because she could not fulfill the requirement of getting hired as a student teacher, due to her identity as a person of Japanese descent. Still determined to both get a degree and to teach, Asawa ended up at Black Mountain College in 1946.

Asawa studied with Albers who was teaching the foundations of art. Albers challenged his students to use everyday materials such as wire, as a material for creating different types of art. She also studied drawing with Ilya Bolotowsky who was a strong proponent of geometric abstraction and using repetition and pattern as a means of visual expression. While taking a dance class taught by Cunningham, she came up with the form for her iconic basket-like sculptures made from crocheting wire that mimic biomorphic forms and appear as if they are in motion, akin to modern dance.

Ruth Asawa teaching paper folding to a group of young students c.1980s.
From the Estate of Ruth Asawa.

Returning to California during the late 1940s, Asawa lived and worked in San Francisco where she raised her six children. Her wire sculptures were in-demand among museums and galleries who gave her ample exhibitions across the United States. Her initial goal to become an arts educator still loomed large and the lack of funding for arts and culture within San Francisco’s public school district during the 1960s provided a much needed opportunity to inspire change. The city’s schools were suffering from a budgetary dilemma that left elementary schools without any art education classes.

In 1968, Asawa was appointed as a member of the San Francisco Arts Commission, which provided her with a strong platform to promote arts education. That same year, Asawa started a summer arts program for elementary school students along with an architectural historian named Sally B. Woodbridge. The initial summer arts workshop was situated in the school that Woodbrige and Asawa’s children attended. It was volunteer run with a variety of teaching artists providing their expertise in drawing, sculpture, weaving, sewing, painting, dance and creative writing. There was also a community gardening effort. The duo solicited donations for traditional art materials, and in the spirit of Black Mountain and Asawa’s own artistic career, salvaged recyclable materials. The pedagogical methods employed at the workshops were inspired by Black Mountain College’s constructivist approach to “learning through doing.”

The summer arts program quickly grew and was implemented in forty citywide schools. Asawa went on to establish a public high school called the San Francisco School of the Arts in 1982. Asawa had come full circle by contributing to the type of artistic pedagogy that was transformative to her. Like her own personal history and her famed wire sculptures, she weaved a myriad of vibrant experiences together into opportunities for others to experience the holistic benefits of art. Her own words (quoted in Tamaki, 2021) sum this perspective up best: “I think that I’m primarily interested in making it possible for people to become as independent and self-sufficient as possible. That has nothing to do with art, except that through the arts you can learn many, many skills that you cannot learn through books and problem-solving in the abstract.”


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

“Black Mountain College, VISIONARIES episode.” YouTube, uploaded by Craft in America, 7 January 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKnmWmQi5Ew&t=332s

“Brilliant Critic.” Time Magazine, 23 November 1942. Archived from the original on 14 October 2010. https://web.archive.org/web/20101014142541/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,773964,00.html

Tamaki, Jillian. “Jillian Tamaki on Ruth Asawa,” MoMA Magazine, 18 May 2021. https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/565

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4 Comments

  1. Very interesting! I have heard of the college because Black Mountain is not far from us. And knew that a slew of famous people went there. I was aware that it didn’t last very long, though, but never knew the reasons why.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an incredible history, and a testament to art-centered education. When Rice founded the school the main goal wasn’t to become an art school. He wanted to inspire students to partake in ethical and democratic actions throughout their academic, personal and professional lives. It’s amazing that Black Mountain College produced so many renowned artists, and that many of those artists contributed to the democratization of art, architecture, design and education throughout the twentieth century. Unfortunately, lack of funding was the school’s downfall. Rice had been asked to leave in the forties due to his polarizing nature, but the school couldn’t continue functioning due to its inuring of debt and decrease in student body…Sadly, this is true for so many other great institutions both past and present.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It brings me joy to know that my post brought your attention to Ruth Asawa’s life and work. It’s an honor to be introduced to your art and your philosophies on materials-based learning and “learning through making.” This is a great example of how profound social and emotional connections are formed directly through artful interaction with everyday materials and experiences.

      Like

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