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A Mysteriously Happy Atmosphere

By John Spong, Fri., Oct. 23, 1998



Clockwise from bottom: Dana Younger, Chris Lavack, Kevin Collins, and Steve Balgooyen

photograph by Kenny Braun

Most folks in town who aren't too grown up to go looking for a party on a Saturday night have probably at least caught a buzz at the Black Mountain estate in near South Austin. The two acres of densely wooded trails and creek bed on the side of a hill near Barton Springs Road have known some doozies. Those who have been there may remember it as an eccentric post-graduate's summer campground, with an upright saloon piano at a bend in one trail, a two-man badminton tournament just a short walk away, and any number of freaky looking statues, sculptures, and totems floating in and above the trees all around. Guests might have met the hosts, the Black Mountain boys, and may have even considered them artists. But what is the significance of that in a scene this far removed from the workaday world? With 250 gawkers, slackers, hipsters, and freaks packed so tightly into the thick bamboo perimeter that you half-expect Arte Johnson to poke his head through the shoots, it is easy to forget that you are within shouting distance of downtown. Even the stretch of South Second Street where the Black Mountain address rests, barely a mile and a half from the Capitol, is a dirt road.

But the residents of Black Mountain -- Chris Levack, Dana Younger, and their neighbor Kevin Collins -- are true-life, occasionally rewarded financially, got-my-degree-to-prove-it artists. And the hidden little piece of land that lends itself so readily to overgrown adolescent activities like the annual Fourth of July Waterballoon Capture-the-Flag wars is the primary reason for their burgeoning position in the Austin arts scene.


"It's all about this space," says Younger, 29, a drama degree holder from UT Austin with rabid eyes, the voice of authority, and the fastest growing hair in Austin. (Depending on the season and his recent mood, Younger's head is invariably either shaved or covered with winding whitey-dreads.) "We can use the trails or the creek, and all in close proximity to the city. That lets us feed off the vibrancy of the city, but in a country oasis. And all the elbow room gives us freedom to create something big. Like a 25-foot sculpture on fire."

"Or 14-foot-tall sculptures with flames extending 15 feet," says Collins, 28, a part-time bartender at the Continental Club with a narrow shark's-fin goatee and a BFA in drawing and photography from Missouri.

"That's right, it was a 14-foot-tall wicker man that we lit on fire," says Younger. "We had about 150 people here, and they all stood silently around it and watched it slowly burn down. Then it went up in a sudden burst, and you heard the big 'Whoosh' of the fire, and the crowd all erupted in this simultaneous, primal, instinctive cry." The woods around the place are thick and tall enough that the flames couldn't be seen from the street, which should have meant no trouble from the police. "The reason the cops came was actually because of the volume of the reaction."

Presumably, most of the crowd understood that the guys were trying to create something artistic that night, and the audience members who didn't probably got close enough to the fire to figure out that something was being created, if only the stink of singed arm hair.



photograph by Kenny Braun

But even the attendees who busted their heads on the Black Mountain College sign hanging on the front porch probably didn't make the connection between Austin's Black Mountain boys and the most significant seedbed for the avant-garde in 20th-century American art.

Black Mountain College was opened in 1933 by some disaffected faculty from Florida's Rollins College. Having found the Rollins tenure system a less than complete shield for protecting debate of the school's teaching tradition, the renegades headed to North Carolina, where, near the spot at which the Smokies butt up against the Blue Ridge Mountains, they set to forge an experiment in both education and community, to intertwine learning and living. Black Mountain College would have no grading and no customary distinction between students and faculty. Every participant would live and dine together and have a say in what courses would be offered and how they would be taught. The goal was an atmosphere of true democracy, where students would be "capable of choosing what it was they proposed to believe in, what their world was going to be." The school stayed open 24 years, existing on small tuition fees and almost yearly donations from the Forbes family. (Fortunately, the Forbes money came free of the bug-eyed piety associated with the family's present, presidentially minded incarnation.) This "mysteriously happy atmosphere," as Thornton Wilder once called it, "graduated" some 1,200 students, but more significantly, was pivotal in the development of such creative revolutionaries as avant-garde composer John Cage, visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, and dance innovator Merce Cunningham, among others.

Despite the eventual renown of the college as an art school, art was initially considered a means rather than an end. Founder John Andrew Rice saw the creative process as a way to develop integrity in the students, to encourage them to "put the same faith into 'doing' (that) they had been taught to have in 'absorbing.'" No fan of expression for expression's sake -- he couldn't stand artists whose "private stomachaches become the tragedy of the world" -- Rice wanted to use art as a bridge to self-realization. To his mind, the act of creating a thing from what is inside you is actually crossing the bridge to self. But Rice, while schooled in Greek classics and as much art as that might include, was no art teacher. So he augmented the faculty with refugee-artists fleeing Nazi Germany, the most significant being Josef and Anni Albers, teachers of painting and weaving, respectively, from the famous Bauhaus school. Josef headed the Black Mountain art department from 1933 to 1949, tweaking Rice's approach ever so slightly to emphasize process over product. "The performance -- how it is done -- that is the content of art," Josef insisted. He pushed students to learn a new way to 'see' and taught with an approach that was new not just to the students but to teaching itself. He swore off art history and theory, cussing the old school who preferred "research to search," stressing that "retrospection is reproduction" but also urging students to "please keep away from the bandwagon, from what is fashion and seems now successful or profitable." He gave students nontraditional materials -- straw, cardboard, wire, and newspaper shared time with wood and canvas -- often with no tools, and he led entire classes on paper folding. Not surprisingly, Rauschenberg called him "the most important teacher I've ever had."



photograph by Kenny Braun

The most famous period at Black Mountain came with the arrival of Cage and Cunningham. Though relatively unknown when they visited the college in the spring of 1948, both were on their way to spots at the head of the avant-garde, and the school's openness and scenery convinced them that it would incubate their budding ideas. (Cunningham was completely suckered in after a two-hour discussion on the dining hall porch was broken up by an orderly from a nearby mental hospital. The orderly came to fetch one of the debate's leaders, a man who had apparently wandered too far from the home.) Returning to New York, Cunningham and Cage raved to their Village compatriots about the magic of the place, and the school was shortly inundated with requests for spots in its summer institute. One friend, architectural sculptor Richard Lippold, offered to work for free and sleep with his wife and two children in a recently purchased hearse for the summer.

Two events stand out from that summer. The first was Buckminster Fuller's initial attempt to build his geodesic dome, an architectural experiment at constructing a self-supporting half-sphere made of interdependent triangles. "Bucky" had been invited down by Albers, and for the dome project he brought a number of 2,600 square foot rolls of Venetian blind scrap stock. The structure was, as Fuller predicted, a complete failure, but the designer evidenced no concern. As it leaned and bent its way apart and down, Fuller cheered it to the ground, stopping just short of a wild-eyed Zorba beach dance.

Most nights that summer, Cage gave half-hour piano concerts, some in the dining hall during supper, but a few by the open window in his cabin for students lying and listening in the grass outside. The selections were all by Erik Satie, and the series culminated in a performance of Satie's play The Ruse of Medusa. Cunningham choreographed the show, Willem de Kooning designed and built the sets, 24-year-old Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) directed, and Elain de Kooning and Fuller played the leads.

Many of the 1948 invitees stayed on at the college, or at least returned each summer. Fuller eventually perfected the geodesic dome, and he actually headed the school for a while in '49. In '53, Cunningham formed his influential dance company at Black Mountain, the year after Cage introduced his mixed media "happenings" that would become so famous. On that first occasion, with Cage as ringmaster, reading and lecturing from a ladder in the dining hall, Cunningham danced, Charles Olson read poetry, David Tudor played piano, and Rauschenberg painted and played Edith Piaf records.

The college's last hurrah -- and the achievement closest to recognition by mainstream America -- came with Robert Creeley's publication of the Black Mountain Review, a literary journal that Olson had encouraged as a way of heightening the school's visibility. Creeley arrived at Black Mountain in 1954, and taking drawings, photos, and writing from both the school and outside contributors, published seven volumes of the review that gave birth to the "Black Mountain Poets." In the last volume of the review, published after the school had run out of money and closed, Creeley ran Ginsburg's "America," Kerouac's "From October the Railroad Earth," poems by Gary Snyder, and the first ever publication of sections of Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn.



photograph by Kenny Braun

While little to no attention was given to these developments at the time, they came to have a huge influence on the art that followed. "It was the cross-pollinization that was so important, which was so pivotal in introducing randomness and formlessness and mutual dependency into the arts," says Robert Crunden, who teaches 20th-century American intellectual and artistic movements in the American Studies department at UT. "Even if you didn't enjoy those things, you knew they were historic, and you wondered how they were doing it.As Arthur Penn would later say, 'It was an exquisite confluence.'"

But for a lot of people, these things fall into the category of "Not Art," as in "Rauschenberg? That's Not Art, that's a damn goat." Crunden answers: "Granted, it had a bigger influence on theory than on practice. You have to remember that this was the age of Eisenhower and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy," a time when America colored within the lines, in only the most basic hues. But this group was defying even the loosest strictures of what could sensibly be done.

"That's where Black Mountain was decisive," says Crunden. "They were the avant-garde at the transition from modernism to post-modernism. You had a few gifted people together doing things that people later could look at and elaborate, and those later people came up with 'post-modernism.' But the artists did it first. It was not important that what they variously did be compatible; it's just important that they thought it was, and that they did it."

Heady philosophizing likethat is as welcome at Black Mountain Austin as an office-park day job. "I think making something is all the philosophy you will ever need," says Levack, the smiley, blonde middle-weight sculptor with John Fogerty's grin and Roy Jones' frame. "We don't need theory, and we don't hit guests over the head with the fact that we are artists." In fact, on first impression, most people just think the three are real good kids, and more than a little bit lucky.

"I guess it was summer '91," says Younger. "I was driving around Hyde Park, looking for a place to rent, and I saw Jenny Hatch in traffic. You know Jenny. She's Tom Hatch's daughter, the Whole Foods architect. She was sitting in her (VW) bug at a stop sign, and I told her I was looking for a place to live. She said, 'Do you want to see a cool place?' and I said, 'Yeah,' and followed her all the way across town from Hyde Park to here." He rented the place immediately.

The outgoing resident who Younger met that day was Gene Menger. Two-and-a-half years before, Menger had gone from Austin to Black Mountain to serve as Director of Student Affairs and Chief Cook in a short-lived attempt to resurrect the college. Sixteen faculty members had led about a dozen students in classes ranging from poetry and painting to mythology and Japanese aesthetics. Like the old school, they had outstanding special events -- they took a field trip to outsider artist Howard Finster's garden, and Austin's Dee McCandless held a dance workshop -- however, "we ended up broke just like they did," says Menger. "Only we did it a lot faster. It was like a micro-Black Mountain." When the school closed that summer, he moved with the new college's founder Marc Herring to the house on South Second, and they brought with them two Black Mountain signs that hang there now.



photograph by Kenny Braun


Fifteen months after Younger moved in, Levack came home to Austin for Christmas after getting a degree in sculpture from the Art Institute of Chicago. "I was finishing a really large piece at the gallery where I worked, but I had to work indoors, and the thing had to come apart into seven pieces so I could take it out of the studio. Then I came to a party at Dana's when I was home, saw all this space and thought I'd really like to live here. A year and half later, I got back and moved in." Since then, the two have seen almost as many roommates as projects. Musicians, writers, and actors, and even one doctor, have watched them stage plays, build an 18-foot-tall teeter-totter, and burn a wicker cow. Their present roommate is Steve Balgooyen, drummer for circus-rock band the Barkers, and their current project is a production of Friedrich Durrenmatt's play The Visit (see sidebar).

Walking around the grounds with just the boys on an afternoon, when Black Mountain Austin is in relative repose, it's easier to see what they are trying to accomplish. Suddenly, an evening's surreal conversation pieces are more plainly the fruits of a day's labor, and you get a sense not just of the way the guys live, but the way they make their living.

Down from the ramshackle wood cabin where Levack and Younger live is a clearing bordered on one side by the green-trimmed tin studio/workshop that houses Younger and Collins' business, Black Mountain Art. The inside looks like a typical bakery, with dust from plaster of Paris and Portland cement subbing for flour and covering the place. Trays with deeply set molds stack on the tables like muffin pans, and rows of the howling, inch-and-a-half-long plaster faces from Younger and Collins' "Seven Deadly Sins" line dry in the corner on cookie sheets. The Sins are the boys' most familiar pieces; a couple of shops in the arts and antiques strip on South Congress sell them, and friends have spotted them in strangers' houses as far away as Seattle. Black Mountain Art also offers a catalog with all manner of imps, gnomes, and other mythological creatures for order.

They finish the larger pieces under the bamboo outside. In August, the area was dominated by Jolly Jack, a 10-foot-tall statue commissioned by Sea Island Shrimp House. Jack is the regional seafood chain's answer to the classic Bob's Big Boy, an oversized cartoon fat kid in cut-off blue jeans and bare feet, with a red-and-white striped shirt and a black top hat. He proudly holds a five-foot-long fish up in his left hand to entice potential diners. Collins and Younger were paid $9,000 to make the mold and will get $3,000 for each of three more Jolly Jacks.

More recent jobs include design and construction of the new-Goth backbar at Casino el Camino, kind of a Black Mountain Art "Gates of Hell" featuring a two-headed snake and various other greatest hits poking out for cameos under the bar's liquor shelves. Collins and Younger also just completed "On-Air" indicators for radio giant CapStar. Last year they cleared $45,000, and they've already topped that this year. But nobody's getting rich. Fully two-thirds of that money has been absorbed in costs.

"We talk a lot about art in relation to our business and making our business more about art," says Younger. "Right now it's just so product-oriented."



photograph by Kenny Braun

Levack has already moved in that direction. He still earns his way primarily from making architectural ceramics at Clayworks, and he's done custom ceramic signs for gates on local developers' subdivisions. But he also teaches ceramics at Austin Museum of Art -- Laguna Gloria, and he has his first large piece for sale in a designer's showroom in Dallas. It's a life-size statue of a buffalo covered completely with copper that's listed at $20,000. He made it in his shop across the clearing, under the house.

Younger's concerns notwithstanding, the Black Mountain output is impressive in a town known as much for its fashionably jaded artistic starving (read: lazy) as its actual artistic successes. Sure, much of what the boys produce now is either commercially inspired, like the CapStar pieces, or intended as the centerpiece for a party, like last year's Sangruilotine, a decapitated body with sangria pumping from the severed jugular in the open neck. But the boys produce.

"The space has been inspirational to other people too because we do the things we say we are going to do," says Younger. "People come to the parties and see cool stuff, and then they call a few days later and say, 'You know, I've had this idea for this project that I keep putting off. But I think after seeing y'all's place the other night, I'm going to go on ahead and do it.'"

"We don't sit around romanticizing about past projects," says Collins.

"Right," continues Levack. "There's always a couple of people here having a beer when I get home from work each night, but they're not just sitting around drinking. They've always just finished something, and they're always ready to help me with whatever I've got ready to do next."

Those people helping out are the community that has grown at Black Mountain Austin. "There's a high count of creative people, lots of extra hands," says Levack. "We couldn't do what we do without all the people coming around and helping out, or without all this space."

Collins picks up Levack's thought. "There's an energy we find here, an energy we draw from. None of us have the arrogance or sense of ego to say, 'We are the New Black Mountain College.' But we have over the last five years been able to work with talent that runs the same gamut. We haven't tried to make any unfit comparisons with the college, but we do maintain a real interest in the spirit of what they did, and we do feel a kinship."

"I like it that the signs were here before we were," says Younger.


John Spong is an assistant editor at Texas Monthly.
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