1933 was a notable year for the arts in Western North Carolina.
It was the year that Black Mountain College, the nation’s first school to place the arts at the very center of education, took up space in its first home in the YMCA building of that town; and it was the year in which Connie Bostic was born.
While the college no longer exists, Connie remains a much admired and respected voice for contemporary art and is a director of the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center. “She’s the doyen of contemporary art in Western North Carolina,” says Nancy Holmes, of Tryon’s Upstairs Artspace and chair of the gallery’s exhibits committee. “She’s been hugely supportive of all good artists and arts organizations, and has been known to launch careers.”
Connie, as well-known for her own art as for her enthusiasm for the work of others, didn’t seem destined for a life in the arts while growing up in Spindale. “There was no art of any kind in Spindale, and when I finished high school I spent two years at Gardner Webb, where there was no art department,” Connie says. Exposure to the arts had to wait until she was in her late 30s and had moved to Asheville with her husband George, with whom she has had five children. Twenty years later, she opened her own gallery, called Zone One, which was Asheville’s only gallery dedicated to contemporary art at that time. “I guess I’m interested in contemporary art because it’s more exploratory,” she explains. “There are more questions than answers.”
Her own work has posed some difficult questions, indeed, most recently a collection of paintings that came to be universally known as her Katrina series. They were born, Connie says, out of disbelief that so many ruined lives could have been effectively ignored by the government. “I simply couldn’t believe the images of suffering I saw on TV and in newspapers and magazines,” Connie recalls. “I was so ashamed of my country for letting the bodies of human beings lie exposed for weeks, for allowing people to suffer and die without any help. It was unbearable.”
Her creative genes seem related to the sometimes-rambunctious family of writers, painters, musicians, poets and sculptors who flocked to Black Mountain College during its 24 years at Lake Eden. Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Buckminster Fuller and the late Merce Cunningham are just a sampling of the major 20th century artists who passed through the college, either as students or teachers (the distinction was fluid), founded by John Rice to foster an interdisciplinary and collaborative way of learning. “It’s amazing to think of the convergence of so much talent and intellectual ability in one small, remote place!” Connie marvels. “The students all learned to play an instrument, they all learned to dance, they all wrote and they all learned to draw. Having met some of them, I believe that their education founded on these activities is far superior to that offered in our schools. They learned to solve problems.”
Perhaps the most famous outcome of such collaborations was Fuller’s first geodesic dome, which he built at Black Mountain out of Venetian blind slats in consultation with student Kenneth Snelson.
Connie, who earned her Masters degree at Western Carolina University after graduating from UNC Asheville, knew little of Black Mountain while growing up in the artistic barrens of Spindale; but there was at least a library, with a copy of Look Homeward, Angel that affected her powerfully. “I memorized pages and tortured everyone around me with quotations,” Connie wrote in the catalog that accompanied a 1996 exhibition of watercolor studies based on Wolfe’s writings at the Ramsay Library. “His exuberance, his depths of despair, and his exultant expressions of joy have never lost their ability to move me,” she says.
The studies formed the basis for a permanent installation, A Thorn Of Memory, at the Thomas Wolfe Visitor’s Center, consisting of 144 painted wooden panels on which Connie worked for two years. In those more affluent days, the project was funded in part by a state program that set aside one-half of a percent of any state building’s costs to pay for a work by a North Carolina artist. The “percent for art” fund has been long defunct, as government support for the arts has fallen as precipitously as the stock market, and more conservative views in Washington have not favored the more adventurous avenues down which contemporary works can wander.
“Art will be made with or without government support,” Connie declares. “We all need to be jolted out of our complacency from time to time, but I leave it to the artist as to how far she or he wants to take that. At the end of my front sidewalk is a quote: To be an artist is never to avert your eyes.”