Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, away from urban art centers, a “radically subversive” program began in 1980 with the goal of cultivating a “meaningful context or ‘culture’ for art”. The Mountain Lake Symposium and Workshop provided a serious but friendly forum for artists, critics, and academic and local participants. Eschewing the concerns of the commercial art world, programs encouraged collaboration, mindful creation, and meaningful community and critical engagement. This radical approach is documented by the program’s founder, artist Ray Kass, and co-organizer, art historian Howard Risatti, in a thoughtful catalogue that accompanies a traveling exhibition and captures the Mountain Lake experience up to 2017. Part history, part memoir, the volume is richly illustrated and impressive in scope, providing a comprehensive compendium of the events that, for a time, grounded an international community in rural Southwest Virginia.
A collaborative spirit and deep respect for the creative process are reflected in the recollections and the text’s design. Organized thematically, 12 chapters composed of essays by Kass, Risatti, and other participants contextualize, describe, and reminisce, providing a conversation of overlapping information and perspectives. Texts are visually supported by a scrapbook-like design, amply interspersed with sketches and documentation of activities and artwork. Including appendices with background on key methods and participants as well as a list of programs and contributors, the text is an accessible and indispensable resource.
The first half of the book offers an overview and covers key workshops that define the themes of the second half. Front matter establishes the catalogue’s structure, with curator Ashley Kistler introducing Mountain Lake’s events and themes while recalling her own experience as a participant. Esteemed art critic and regular participant, Donald Kuspit, supplies further commentary, fondly recalling the symposia’s critical engagement. The chapters that follow similarly intermix historical essays with personal reflections.
Chapter 1 opens with sketches of participants by Gary (Chico) Harkrader who expresses a common sentiment acknowledging the profound effect this “giant ‘salon’” had on his “art, education, and philosophy.” Complementary essays by Risatti and Kass follow, linking the symposium to artist-led workshops, providing insight into the programs’ formation and concepts, and explaining significant participants like Kuspit. In Chapter 2, Kass explicates personal intentions revealing the community of influences from which programs grew. Cultivating and expanding those relationships distinguish the workshops highlighted in the remaining chapters.
Chapters 3 through 6 focus on visionary artists who defined the workshops’ themes. This section fittingly begins with chapters on John Cage and Howard Finster, who, Kass notes, “were defining figures in the evolution of the Mountain Lake Workshop.” Essays recount Cage’s increasing involvement throughout the 1980s and Kass’s role in facilitating these activities. Chance-based practices and inspiration from Asian philosophies formed the basis of Cage’s ego-less, mindful expressions, and these practices established a philosophy for the entire Mountain Lake series as apparent throughout the book. They connect to Chapter 4’s subject, Howard Finster, who similarly embraced chance and collaboration using a basic set of parameters within which various creations could happen. Essays convey different recollections of Finster’s “workout” workshops for which he supplied “dimensions,” paper stencils of “discovered” images, for participants’ use.
Cage’s and Finster’s methods set the stage for other workshops and chapters. In Chapters 5 and 6, Risatti introduces the early 1990s workshops of Japanese artist, Jiro Okura, and Kass’s own workshop which produced watercolor polyptychs. Okura utilized chance, natural materials, and a stenciling method to facilitate collaborative, meditative works while Kass similarly devised chance-based, meditative methods and “motivational exercises” to help him paint like nature operates.
These interconnections between artists, nature, and cultures culminate in Chapter 7 which focuses on Ki no Ichiku (Relocating the Tree), an interdisciplinary study-abroad program, 1997-2000. It included instruction in Asian art and architecture and hands-on projects working with Japanese and Chinese traditions. Risatti and Kass give an overview of the program followed by participants’ personal recollections. Related workshops involving Okura, Peter Lau, Michael Hofmann, and Xiao Yan Gan are also highlighted. These essays underscore strong connections between the workshops and Asian traditions and link to other workshops covered in the book’s second half.
Chapters 8 and 9 cover workshops involving traditional processes and materials and technology. Essays identify a community with common influences—Duchamp, Cage, and Asian traditions—and provide background and personal reflections on various workshops including Helen Frederick’s papermaking and Alston (Stoney) Conley’s fresco painting as well as projects with potter-poet, M.C. Richards; eco-artist, Lynne Hull; sculptor, Lee Sauder; graffiti artist, James De La Vega; Scottish painter James Donnelly; Cy Twombly; Mierle Laderman Ukeles; Jackie Matisse; Bruce McClure; and Sally and Jessie Mann. The chapters’ organization reflects a community’s formation: one workshop and artist interrelated to another through common relationships and methods.
Chapters 10 and 11 make these connections clear and illuminate Cage’s lingering influence. As Risatti explains, the 1994 Appalachian Trail Frieze project related to earlier workshops by Cage and Kass and subsequently influenced a 2013 event. A Cage-inflected workshop by French artist Jacques Pourcher is also featured along with a project utilizing Cage’s practice sheets. The random marks produced by wiping his brush inspired John Cage’s Zen Ox-Herding Pictures for which artist and Zen scholar, Stephen Addiss, paired 10 practice sheet ‘paintings’ with texts selected from Cage’s published ‘found’ writings. Chapter 11 comes full circle with accounts of Cage’s STEPS: A Composition for a Painting, first staged at Mountain Lake in 1989 and subsequently performed by other individuals or groups from 2006 to Cage’s Centennial Festival, 2012-2013. Taken together, these projects reveal how a community continued to evolve and expand and lead into Risatti’s epilogue summarizing Mountain Lake’s “collaborative spirit” as its most enduring lesson and legacy.
An essential resource on Kass’s Mountain Lake experiment and Cage’s artistic legacy there, this text documents these radical, utopian efforts. Lacking the posturing and hierarchy of typical conferences, this program provided a unique opportunity to reach across cultural, disciplinary, and regional divides and make sense of the world together. Beyond mere records or reminiscences, this valuable volume offers inspiration and a blueprint for future endeavors.
Ray Kass and Howard Risatti, eds. The Mountain Lake Symposium and Workshop: Art in Locale. Farmville, VA: Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, Longwood University, distributed by University of Virginia Press, 2018. 352 pp. $49.95
[Other contributions by Steven Addiss, Steven Bickley, Tom Coffin, Alston (Stoney) Conley, Jane M. Farmer, Gary (Chico) Harkrader, Taro Hatanaka, Rachel Talent Ivers, Ulrike Kasper, Joe Kelley, Ashley Kistler, Sam Krisch, Donald B. Kuspit, Peter Lau, Liz Liguori, Jessie Mann, Bruce McClure, Alwyn Moss, Ann Oppenhimer, Jerrie Pike, Kathy Pinkerton, Roger Reynolds, Lee Sauder, Brian Sieveking, and Georg Weckwerth.]
Volume 36 no 1 September / October 2021