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Remembering Black Mountain College 

Appalachian spring

In the opening frames of the documentary Fully Awake: The Black Mountain College Experience, one is enticed by a heady list of artists who were part of the phenomenon known as Black Mountain College.

Josef Albers, Anni Albers, Arthur Penn, David Tudor, John Cage, Merce Cuningham, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, M.C. Richards, Charles Olsen, Robert Creeley, Franz Kline.... It is amazing to think that all of these art-world luminaries once constellated and immersed themselves in creative experimentation in a remote, isolated college in the mountains of North Carolina. This weekend, the film will have a one-time screening at the N.C. Museum of Art.

Filmmakers Cathryn Davis Zommer and Neeley House follow the course of Black Mountain's inception and cathartic history by interweaving interview footage of about 20 former students and faculty with archival footage and still photographs. The interviewees deliver articulate, personal recollections and meditations on Black Mountain's influence on their lives. What emerges is the picture of an institution built on progressive concepts about learning, a place where students and faculty collaborated at all levels of college life and where individual students were given the profound responsibility of determining the shape of their own education.

Fully Awake offers some compelling narrative moments, such as writer Hannelore Hahn's memory of a week's "interlude" announced by Josef Albers—during which no classes were held, and students were asked to refrain from activities—so students could focus inward and on their own studies. The description of open-ended time during this week of emptiness feels like an impossible luxury (and the antithesis of the rigors of most contemporary learning institutions). Hahn recalls that week as one of the richest and most productive in her time at Black Mountain.

Highlights of Fully Awake are its first-person accounts. We learn, for example, that Josef Albers brought his Bauhaus sensibility and focused discipline to his teaching, encouraging students to produce "matières," projects based on exploration of non-traditional materials. The goal was not to impart a style or technique but rather to convey a means of approaching form, to learn to function as artists. Buckminster Fuller worked with students to construct some of his first geodesic domes. Charles Olsen is portrayed as a brilliant, charismatic and deeply involved teacher. The intensity of the Black Mountain experience is succinctly described by poet and painter Basil King, a former student, when he off-handedly notes that Olsen's classes could last 24 hours.

Fully Awake stumbles at times. I recognized the fleeting image of an unnamed artist as Shoji Hamada, the master Japanese ceramicist. Several other images of unidentified students, faculty and visiting artists flashed by during Fully Awake, possibly of equal significance. Further, a cursory Internet search pointed to some other noteworthy participants during the 24 years of Black Mountain's existence. One wonders why the filmmakers did not even briefly include such names as Walter Gropius, Albert Einstein, Clement Greenberg, William Carlos Williams, John Chamberlain, Ray Johnson, Kenneth Noland and Cy Twombly.

Some of the photographic documentation used by Zommer and House is impressive. Of supreme impact are images of Merce Cunningham at the height of his powers as a dancer, executing some signature moves. Regrettably, breathtaking moments like these are few and far between. More often than not, artists and their work are represented via narrative only. Cinematically, Fully Awake comes off as a rather conservative talking heads piece, with a plodding use of solo piano music by Erik Satie on the soundtrack. This is particularly poignant inasmuch as the film's subject represents the realm of innovation, risk-taking and experiment. At one point in the film, one of the subjects refers to Black Mountain as "a lively, funny, painful, exhilarating place," a list of qualities which, unfortunately, are not paralleled in the film itself.

While limited in its visual style, Fully Awake stands as a valuable resource, a record of a radical experiment that succeeded brilliantly for almost a quarter century, and as affirmation of the potential of educational institutions to profoundly impact lives and springload creative development.

Fully Awake will screen at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Visit www.ncartmuseum.org for more information.

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