Frescoes in America

The two frescoes depicted here are arguably the world’s most famous examples of Italian High Renaissance art. Even persons not particularly knowledgeable are usually able to identify Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (left) and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (below). This art form involves painting a mural by applying paint directly onto fresh, wet plaster before it sets. Water is mixed with the dry pigments and acts as the bonding agent when the paint is applied to the plaster, which absorbs the colors as it dries. It is an ancient technique that produces vibrant, lasting color. Some of the earliest examples of fresco painting have been traced back to 2000 BC, made by Minoans in Crete, Israel and Egypt to adorn palace walls and tombs, while others date from Bronze Age Greece in 1600 BC. What may surprise readers is that the art form is alive and well today in the American state of North Carolina.

During our summer travels, a cousin suggested we visit the Ben Long frescoes that decorate sacred and public spaces in the western part of the state. I did not know these wonderful works of art existed and was delighted to travel to see three of them. The extra, unplanned mileage was well worth the effort!

Ben Long was born into a family of artists, writers, professors, and college presidents and grew up in Statesville, North Carolina. Following his father’s university career path, he studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After graduation, he moved to New York City to study fine art at the Art Students League. When the conflict in southeast Asia deepened, he preempted the draft by enlisting in the Marines, serving more than two tours in Vietnam. His last posting was Commander of the Combat Art Team. Much of his work from that period now hangs in the United States National Marine Corps Museum.

Life after war found Long in Florence, Italy studying with world renowned fresco artist Maestro Pietro Annigoni. While Long works in other forms of art and studied and worked in other European locations, it is his frescoes upon which we concentrate in this post. By 1984, he had completed several frescoes in Italy, most notably, one done as a joint effort with his teacher, Annigoni, at the Abbey of Monte Cassino. Long is the only non-Italian to have contributed to the art of that famed abbey.

This brings me to the story I was told by a docent at one of the North Carolina locations recounting how Long came to paint frescoes in his native North Carolina. This may or may not be totally factual, but it does give the gist of how the frescoes came into being.

According to my source, in the early 70’s Ben was at a social gathering in Blowing Rock, NC where he met J. Faulton Hodge, the rector of two dying, historic churches that are part of Holy Communion Episcopal Parish of Ashe County, NC (Asheville area). The bishop assigned Rev. Hodge to these churches to either rebuild the congregations or close them down. Ben was looking for a place to practice his art and offered to paint frescoes in the churches free of charge. The rector accepted with enthusiasm, but immediately asked, “Exactly what is a fresco?” The first fresco, Mary Great with Child, was begun in 1974 at St. Mary’s Church in West Jefferson. Long went on to paint two more frescoes at St. Mary’s. He also painted The Last Supper at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in nearby Glendale Springs. Ultimately, the frescoes became of such interest that the churches were revived as a single congregation with service locations alternating between to two historic sanctuaries.

The website SpiritualTravels continues the story of the St. Mary’s frescoes as follows.

Local residents soon heard of the project and flocked to the church to see what was happening, especially after a rumor got started that the mural would feature people in the nude.

Even after locals learned that the rumor was untrue (no doubt to the disappoint of some), many took a great interest in the process and came regularly to watch as the artist and his assistants worked. People from various denominations took turns feeding and housing the visiting artists and tried to outdo each other in creating meals for them.

Over the next three years, Long created two additional frescoes for St. Mary’s:  John the Baptist in 1975 and Mystery of Faith in 1977.

It’s said that during the painting of the final mural, Long continued working even during church services, though he would stop briefly to take communion. The works of art and their ensuing fame helped transform the church from a struggling parish to a true congregation.[1]

The Ben Long frescoes are scattered throughout North Carolina, but the most visited are found in the mountainous western part of the state.

From Blue Ridge Heritage:

The Blue Ridge Frescoes are located along the Benjamin F. Long IV Fresco Trail. Within the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, there are nine frescoes at six locations:

  • Mary Great with Child, John the Baptist, and Mystery of Faith, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, West Jefferson, NC.
  • The Last Supper, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Glendale Springs, NC.
  • Return of the Prodigal, Chapel of the Prodigal, Montreat College, Montreat, NC.
  • Sacred Dance and the Muses, City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium, Morganton, NC.
  • Suffer the Little Children, E.H. Sloop Chapel, Crossnore School, Crossnore, NC.
  • St. Paul’s Conversion and St. Paul Writing His Epistles, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wilkesboro, NC.

Other frescoes on the trail are located in Statesville and Charlotte, NC.

Long prefers to paint from life and uses local people as models for his frescoes. Today, he trains students in the artistic traditions of classical realism at his school, the Fine Arts League of the Carolinas.[2]

Here are the works listed above in order named:

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Notes and Resources