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My eyes have seen glory in plaster

Charles Moore, Community Voices Columnist • Sep 16, 2018 at 7:45 AM

I recently finished taking photographs of the five Ben Long frescoes in the western North Carolina counties. These are fairly well known, it seems, and enjoyed by many people. I wanted to see them for myself and take a decent photo of each for keepsake.

The five frescoes are located at: St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, West Jefferson; Trinity Episcopal Church, Glendale Springs; Sloop Chapel, Crossnore School, Crossnore; Morganton Municipal Auditorium, Morganton; Chapel of the Prodigal, Montreat College.

A fresco is done with plaster instead of paint. The plaster is colored usually in lighter tones and is generally not as nearly vibrant as acrylic or oil. But the installation must be brutal. Ben Long did all these frescoes himself and each one required quick but meticulous work since the plaster dries and hardens almost as fast as he works.

Each day’s painting (the Sloop Chapel “Suffer the Children” is easily 10 feet across by 5 feet high and 10 feet above the floor) would require a place in the piece that affords a stopping point at the end of the day but along a seam. All this done on a scaffold with lighting, assistants, very careful planning, and who knows about bathroom breaks. The Morganton “Muses” fresco is on the ceiling so you can imagine him working over his head, 25 five feet up, using fresh plaster that might/might not stick and whose color might/might not be what he had planned. The Morganton “Muses” is easily the largest of the five at 24 by 33 feet and the most difficult to photograph.

The first, at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church near West Jefferson, was done in 1974 and redone most recently in 1976. As we all know from the work done at the Sistine Chapel, fresco deteriorates over time, as do many paintings, not so much perhaps losing its color, which it does, or succumbing to air pollutants, but the plaster itself will adhere only for so long. If nothing else, the older the building the more creaky the wood and its ability to hold the drywall or plaster underpinning before the whole thing becomes too fragile and expensive to maintain. I have often wondered that the slow deterioration is what makes art valuable because it does not last. The work is only on loan. We should never kid ourselves that our cultural promotions are indestructible.

I was fooling myself into thinking I knew what I was doing. My photographic expectation was something out of National Geographic. It is amazing how some of us are so easily fooled. I was equally fooling myself into thinking I would be immune to what I saw. The reality was a very different experience, although not necessarily religious, but certainly emotional. These frescoes are really something to gaze at and wonder about.

St. Mary’s and Trinity Episcopal, and to a lesser extent the Sloop Chapel, offered unexpected extras not only for photography but also provided a larger sense of place and meaning. There was, as it should have been, more of an “Oh, wow!” experience at the first three locations.

I have been more than a few places that feel “close to God” both natural and man-made. It is hard to shut out the Grand Canyon or the quiet of a night on a bayou or the soft murmur of the surf. Humans cannot build against such natural competition but something like the St. Mary’s “The Mystery of Faith” can invite you to look inward for a longer time than needed for an Instagram selfie.

They require from us something of an individual appreciation and a moment of focused thought. It is easy to check off “number five” and forget to absorb what they had to offer. Some things exist for a purpose other than being on the list: like visiting 1,000 before you die but do not remember any of them; like reading the top 100 books (the current rage) does not require absorbing the meaning and ability of language or message. Doing something just to check it off the list demeans the list and the lister equally.

We, the viewer, the visitor, the gawker, assign worthiness but that value is more relative within any like pieces of work. What I thought of them, what they might mean in relation to a sculpture piece is not important. I am glad I was this fortunate. Somehow I think that was really supposed to be the idea in the first place.

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