THE ARTISTS, POETS and PROFESSORS of BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE (the college featured in the film THE LONGEST RIDE) Part 21 Sylvia Ashby playwright


Nicholas Sparks Talks Adapting ‘The Longest Ride’ to the Screen

Fully Awake – PREVIEW

Tucked in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Black Mountain College (1933-1957) was an influential experiment in education that inspired and shaped 20th century modern art. Through narration, archive photography and interviews with students, teachers and historians, Fully Awake explores the development of this very special place – and how its collaborative curriculum inspired innovations that changed the very definition of “art”.

Great website:

I was born in Detroit and now reside in Texas.  In between, I’ve lived in North Carolina, Iowa, Northern and Southern California, Hawaii, Nebraska, and Florida–not necessarily in that order.  Long before starting to write plays, I concentrated on acting as an undergrad at Black Mountain College, the U. of Iowa, and a grad student at Hawaii.  In Iowa, I acquired a theatre historian/husband; we have two grown children.I have thirteen published scripts, with some 1500 productions–ranging from Iditarod Elementary School in Alaska to Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.  My adaptation of SECRET GARDEN was translated and published in the Netherlands.  My most popular script ANNE OF GREEN GABLES has been produced all over the U. S., with recent productions in England, Scotland, Australia, Canada.  Needless to say, I also have scripts in process.

In the article ‘The Longest Ride,’ A Love Story About Luke, A Champion Bull Rider, And Sophia, A Young College Girl, Is Based On The Bestselling Nicholas Sparks Novel, Hits Theaters April 10, 2015, I read:

From the art of bull riding to the art of…art, Nicholas Sparks’ research took him to unexpected places. “One of the story’s principal locales ended up being one of the greatest moments of kismet in my entire career,” he continues. “I remember sitting at the desk thinking, how on earth is this couple [young Ira and Ruth] from North Carolina going to become big art collectors?

“My research led me to Black Mountain College, which was the center of the modern art movement in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.”

Black Mountain College was founded in the 1930s as an experimental college. It came to define the modern art movement. “Everyone from de Kooning to Rauschenberg was there,” says Sparks. “Robert De Niro’s father, another noted artist, attended Black Mountain College. There were very famous artists there and if you look at the American modern art movement in the 1940s and 1950s, there were important intersections there with the great works of this century.”

My first post in this series was on the composer John Cage and my second post was on Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg who were good friend of CageThe third post in this series was on Jorge Fick. Earlier we noted that  Fick was a student at Black Mountain College and an artist that lived in New York and he lent a suit to the famous poet Dylan Thomas and Thomas died in that suit.

The fourth post in this series is on the artist  Xanti Schawinsky and he had a great influence on John Cage who  later taught at Black Mountain College. Schawinsky taught at Black Mountain College from 1936-1938 and Cage right after World War II. In the fifth post I discuss David Weinrib and his wife Karen Karnes who were good friends with John Cage and they all lived in the same community. In the 6th post I focus on Vera B. William and she attended Black Mountain College where she met her first husband Paul and they later  co-founded the Gate Hill Cooperative Community and Vera served as a teacher for the community from 1953-70. John Cage and several others from Black Mountain College also lived in the Community with them during the 1950’s. In the 7th post I look at the life and work of M.C.Richards who also was part of the Gate Hill Cooperative Community and Black Mountain College.

In the 8th post I look at book the life of   Anni Albers who is  perhaps the best known textile artist of the 20th century and at Paul Klee who was one  of her teachers at Bauhaus. In the 9th post the experience of Bill Treichler in the years of 1947-1949  is examined at Black Mountain College. In 1988, Martha and Bill started The Crooked Lake Review, a local history journal and Bill passed away in 2008 at age 84.

In the 10th post I look at the art of Irwin Kremen who studied at Black Mountain College in 1946-47 and there Kremen spent his time focused on writing and the literature classes given by the poet M. C. Richards. In the 11th post I discuss the fact that Josef Albers led the procession of dozens of Bauhaus faculty and students to Black Mountain.

In the 12th post I feature Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) who was featured in the film THE LONGEST RIDE and the film showed Kandinsky teaching at BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE which was not true according to my research. Evidently he was invited but he had to decline because of his busy schedule but many of his associates at BRAUHAUS did teach there. In the 13th post I look at the writings of the communist Charles Perrow. 

Willem de Kooning was such a major figure in the art world and because of that I have dedicated the 14th15th and 16th posts in this series on him. Paul McCartney got interested in art through his friendship with Willem because Linda’s father had him as a client. Willem was a  part of New York School of Abstract expressionism or Action painting, others included Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Richard Pousette-Dart.

In the 17th post I look at the founder Ted Dreier and his strength as a fundraiser that make the dream of Black Mountain College possible. In the 18th post I look at the life of the famous San Francisco poet Robert Duncan who was both a student at Black Mountain College in 1933 and a professor in 1956. In the 19th post I look at the composer Heinrich Jalowetz who starting teaching at Black Mountain College in 1938 and he was one of  Arnold Schoenberg‘s seven ‘Dead Friends’ (the others being Berg, Webern, Alexander Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos). In the 20th post I look at the amazing life of Walter Gropius, educator, architect and founder of the Bauhaus.

In the 21st post I look at the life of the playwright Sylvia Ashby.

Black Mountain College, 1948
Sylvia Ashby

Sylvia Ashby
This image is housed at the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

In October 2012 I turned the corner to 84. So when I write about my errant youth, you know it was a long, long time ago.

Sylvia Ashby: “This sketch of me was a birthday card for me done by room mate Sheila Oline (later Marbain) who had a print studio in Manhattan for decades ( Maurel Studios). The inscription reads ‘I have a birthday in my pocket.’ The costume was pretty much the BMC uniform.”

This item is housed at the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

I like to write in old blue books. Not just old blue books but old, used blue books. When you sit down to write in a torn-up blue book, even if you’re writing drivel, at least you’re not wasting paper. Maybe that’s why I like to write in those discarded exam booklets. My blue books belong in a museum. They were used when I taught Freshman English in days of yore. Of course, I’d never taken Freshman English or Freshman anything for that matter. The idea was that students wrote on one side of the five-cent booklet, then made corrections on the opposite side. After finals, there’d be a stack of left-over blue books. I’d tear out the first few scribbled-on pages and have the rest for my very own. There’s something comforting, non-threatening about an old blue book. As for reading, I like memoirs—that’s my genre. I like reading about everyone’s life. Though not my own. When you think of memoirs, you think of confessions. I wonder if this is my confession–this story from my slightly errant, mostly clueless youth: Almost eighteen, an idealistic young thing, I rode the bus from Detroit to a college that was totally unaccredited—no grades, no hours, no tests, no majors, no rules. Black Mountain College, on a farm near Asheville, North Carolina, was the outpost of progressive education the U.S. At its height, when I arrived in 1946, there were at most 100 students.

Sylvia Ashby, second from right, with washboard.
This image is housed at the Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina.

In the summer session of 1948, the faculty included Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller. I’d like to say I was cool and understood how fascinating these folks were, but alas, I was a naive, self-absorbed Midwesterner. So many of the students had either grown up on the streets of Greenwich Village or were GI’s returning from the exploits of WWII. If “avant-garde” was the typical description of BMC, you could safely say I was bringing up the rear.

I thought the world’s first geodesic dome, which Bucky Fuller fashioned from rolls of aluminum venetian blind strips, was somewhat peculiar. Besides, it fell down a few days later.

Every night after dinner, John Cage serenaded us with an Eric Satie concert, perhaps the world’s first, possibly last, Eric Satie Festival. A few years before, Cage had chunked bits of hardware into the bowels of a piano thus creating his so-called “prepared piano.” Just what it was prepared for I’m not certain. I’ve read that BMC was credited with the world’s first “Happening” that summer, though again, I’m not sure what happened. I do remember then-student Arthur Penn, he of Bonnie and Clyde fame, directing a Satie script in which Merce danced (his wonderful “Monkey Dances” stayed in his repetoire) and Bucky proved a capable comic actor. I guess my claim to fame is that I danced with William de Kooning, though it lasted less than the required fifteen minutes. I’d heard he was supported, even then, by art patrons. Personally, I thought he should get a job. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit to studying acting with Arthur Penn, and played the ingenue in his “Hello, Out There” and “Shadow and Substance.” Though a BMC student, Arthur was already a theatre professional, coming up through the ranks of the Neighborhood Playhouse, NYC bastion of Stanislavski’s Method Acting. In my defense, I’ll add that I did recognize his brilliance and fine future.

Our beloved literature teacher M. C. Richards had translated the Satie piece (and later translated Artaud’s “Theatre and Its Double”). M.C. looked kindly on the few scraps of poetry I’d managed to turn out. Attending a conference at the university in Greensboro, she showed my collected works to poet Randall Jarrell. He said I was operating under the influence of e. e. cummings. Bingo! If she’d shown him my prose, he would have said I was under the spell of Gertrude Stein, also true: I had just learned to discard all punctuation marks. Capital letters, I decided, were a bourgeois hindrance. But, as you can see, those determined little marks have crept back in. Occasionally visitors would appear on the scene, coming to check us out—to see just what was going on there. I recall James Farmer, a leading civil rights crusader from the 60’s and beyond; Denzel Washington played Farmer in a 2007 film. Photographer Irving Penn came out of curiosity, but mainly to see his kid brother Arthur. For me, most intriguing of visitors was Anais Nin, on the scandalous side even then, a reputation enhanced by her relationship with the more notorious Henry Miller. What impressed me about Anais was her make-up: I had never seen anyone with such a painted face, not even on canvas. All pinks and lavenders with bold dark lines, it had the exaggeration of ballet stage make-up–not that I’d ever seen a ballet. In fact, I’d never heard of Anais Nin. As for Mr. Miller, forget it. I’m sure Wikipedia could tell you who portrayed Anais in the film Henry and June.

America made history when Southern colleges and universities were desegregated in the early 60’s. But BMC, in that same segregated South, had black students when I arrived, and even before I arrived, and nobody paid any attention. I guess we slipped in below the radar. There was no public transportation, so on one of those rare occasions when I got to town—Asheville—I was walking down the main street with Jeanne, a pretty black student from Tennessee. We passed a Woolworth’s Five and Ten. “Let’s go get something to eat,” I said. Jeanne quickly turned, “I can’t do that!” She was shocked, no doubt, by my general cluelessness. The point was made more forcefully during the first Christmas break. At the train station in Asheville I discovered we could not sit together. Our small group sat in one car, but Jeanne would have to sit several sections back. You’d think I could have figured out that much by now. But BMC was so isolated, and so few people had cars, we could have been dropped by parachute onto another planet—a very beautiful planet.

Unlike most—no, make that all colleges—BMC had no Regents, no Board of Directors, no Deans. Instead there was a faculty council. No surprise, toward the end of my first year, they voted to put me on probation. I responded with a simple letter. Again, M.C. was pleased with my writing, longer than the compacted bits I usually squeezed out. M.C. read my letter at the next meeting. Arthur, as student rep on the council, was there too. Some faculty members feared I was suffering from a case of Terminal Stanislavki, contracted from over-exposure to Arthur’s “Method Acting.” Maybe there was madness in the Method? Had I been permanently transformed? My rebuttal must have worked: The BMC governors granted a last-minute reprieve, for better or worse.

At the end of two years, all my friends were leaving. Writer Isaac Rosenfeld, part of the 1948 summer faculty, preached the value of the orgone box; this was a mysterious invention of Wilhelm Reich, émigré psychoanalyst who, in a handful of years, would spend time in jail on fraud charges. The orgone box, a wooden structure you sat in, was somehow supposed to improve your sex life. Naturally, a few friends left in search of the Holy Grail—a.k.a, the orgone box.

I don’t know where everyone exited to. Arthur to U. of Perugia. One group traipsed off to start a commune in Oregon, though that term was not yet in common usage—not in the 40’s. Those who headed for San Francisco became in short order the forerunners of Beatniks and Hippies. That’s when Peggy Vaughn, living on a houseboat in Sausalito, pioneered the Tin Angel, a famous San Francisco night spot. My childhood friend Marion, returning to UCLA, gradually evolved into an Oscar-nominated film editor. Sheila went back to Manhattan, living with her boyfriend in a $6 a month cold-water flat. In time, Sheila mastered silk-screen printing; decades later she gave me copies of the posters she’d made for the likes of Andy Warhol, plus the iconic LOVE poster of Robert Indiana. But, Chick Perrow went straight, ended up a Yale sociology prof.

I returned home to Detroit. Isaac, the orgone box advocate, had encouraged me to try a university, maybe something in the mid-west. Jim Herlihy was a BMC buddy: we were about the same age, both from Detroit, both interested in acting and writing. He called me up. “So, what are you going to do?” “I don’t know,” I said. By now it was late August. “I’ve been accepted here at Wayne and the University of Iowa. I don’t know where to go.” Jim, who would later write Midnight Cowboy under his full title—James Leo Herlihy—found an almanac in his fairly-bookless, tar-papered home and read to me over the phone: Iowa City was a small town of 10,000 with a river running through it. Thank you, Jim. That did it. So off I went, once again. This time trading freedom for structure. And that’s when I saw my first blue book….

Sylvia Ashby: “I was born in Detroit, now reside in Texas, and have lived in North Carolina, northern and southern California, Hawaii, Florida, Nebraska–not necessarily in that order. I concentrated on acting when I was a student at Black Mountain College and at the University of Iowa, and as a grad student at the University of Hawaii. In Iowa, I acquired a theatre-historian husband; we have two grown children. I have published 15 scripts for family audiences, with some 2,000 productions. The most popular, Anne of Green Gables, has been produced on three continents. In the last decade I returned to acting: favorite roles were in Gin Game; Beauty Queen of Leenane; Importance of Being Earnest.”For a YouTube history of Black Mountain College, go



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