“Leap Before You Look”

Along with walking and watching and writing at Playa (and other mark-making activity; see below), I have been reading a lot: mostly poetry (specifically, Rilke) and a book on astrophysics, both of which have been strongly informing and infusing my new work. But as I was preparing to post about exactly that, my attention kept being distracted by some passages and images in another book I’ve been reading (in fact I am kind of obsessed with it at the moment): Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957.


Published in 2016 by Yale University Press, this enormous and exhaustively-researched compendium contains close to 500 high-quality color and black-and-white images (historical photographs and artwork), as well as interviews with and/or other contributions by a huge number of the students, faculty, founders, patrons and others who were part of this singularly legendary and visionary school of the arts in the mountains of North Carolina. And while so much content could make for a tedious read, author Helen Molesworth’s lively and deeply engaged writing style and organizational choices makes it an  enlivening and inspiring one. 

Many of the American poets (Charles Olsen, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, John Ashbery) and and visual artists (Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Annie and Joseph Albers) whose work I have been most drawn to were in some way associated with the Black Mountain School. And Warren Wilson College,  where I did my own MFA studies, was more or less modeled after (and often shared activities with) Black Mountain, which was located just five miles away. For both reasons, I have wanted for some time to know more about the school’s history and vision.

All that is about why I myself personally am so interested in this book. But it only occurred to me to post about it when I read what may be the best articulation I have ever read of the reason that the practice of art (which at Black Mountain was the only kind of required course; all other subjects were electives) is central —in fact crucial to—sustaining a democracy, rather than a frivolous pursuit, to be dispensed with when federal funding is tight.

Black Mountain was a college founded between world wars, and many of its faculty and others involved in its vision and curriculum were European immigrants. Many of those were Jewish refugees who came to the U.S. (or  who were recruited by the college to do so) to escape fascism and its consequences. People who, having been directly subject to (and/or in other ways involved with) the conditions which gave rise to fascism, and the resulting horrors and losses resulting from both totalitarianism and war, knew what was at stake with respect to an individual’s choice of how to spend a life in service of the vitality and humanity —even the very survival— of a democratic society.

And since we are living in a time when our democracy itself is under assault by our elected leadership, and our collective fear seems to be shutting down our abilities, individually and collectively, to listen to each other with curiosity and compassion (which is what fear does, and I mean at a physiological level), it seems to be particularly urgent to comprehend, articulate and defend the role and practice of art in our lives, individually and together.

So here’s the passage I wanted to share (quotes within the passage are from the school’s catalogs):

What most distinguished Black Mountain from other schools was the vital role the arts played in the college’s democratic aims. Both Rice and Dewey [Founders John Rice and John Dewey] 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.”  […] “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 judgement 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.  (bold mine)


“Playa & hills, January afternoon.” (Watercolor, local charcoal and playa mud) DCH

So in honor of Black Mountain College and its visionary founders and artists and writers, here’s a poem I have long cherished by Black Mountain College poet, Robert Duncan.

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.
Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.
She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.
It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down
whose secret we see in a children’s game
of ring a round of roses told.
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
“Feet of Clay” . 2/3/18. Brown envelope, local charcoal, Playa mud and Conte crayon.

Author: Donna C Henderson

Donna Henderson lives on the banks of the Deschutes River in Maupin, Oregon, where she also practices psychotherapy, poetry, music, Reiki, and teaches yoga, among other things.

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