Ben Long’s NC Frescoes
For many Americans, frescoes are usually associated with distant places and artists long since passed away - Michelangelo’s ceiling at the Sistine Chapel perhaps being the prime example. But here in North Carolina, this most ancient of the arts (after all, cave paintings are considered a form of fresco) is experiencing a remarkable renaissance, thanks to the efforts of one of our most talented native sons: Ben Long of Asheville.
The story of how it all began is almost as compelling as the frescoes themselves.
Long returned to North Carolina after years of studying fresco painting under master artist Pietro Annigoni in Florence, Italy. So passionate was he about his newly mastered craft, he told just about anyone who would listen that he would gladly donate his services – if they would only give him a wall to show what he could do. Astonishingly, Long had no takers for months - until one evening luck, fate, or perhaps an even higher power intervened, causing him to cross paths with someone who needed his help.
Faulton Hodge was the pastor of two small Episcopalian churches in Ashe County that had fallen on hard times: St. Mary’s in West Jefferson had dwindled to only 13 members, and Holy Trinity in Glendale Springs had no parishioners and one crumbled wall. So at a dinner party, Long was introduced to Hodge and made his oft-repeated offer. "We’ll take it!" the minister exclaimed - quickly adding: "What is a fresco?"
What transpired over the next several months is nothing short of, well, miraculous.
On one of St. Mary’s walls, Long appropriately wanted to paint an expectant Madonna. But to lend his composition the touches of reality he desired, he needed a model. One day he happened to spot a barefoot local girl and immediately knew she was the one for whom he’d been searching. Weeks later, when he had finished the work, he finally thought to ask her name: "Mary," she replied, a beatific smile lighting up her face as she quietly strolled away.
Long subsequently completed two more striking frescoes at St. Mary’s: "John the Baptist" and "The Mystery of Faith," a striking crucifixion /resurrection scene. Meanwhile, an equally eerie event was unfolding over at Holy Trinity church, writes Sheila Turnage in her book North Carolina:
"While Long finished his work at St. Mary’s, Hodge stood in Trinity’s churchyard, wondering if he should destroy the Glendale Springs church he couldn’t afford to repair, and sell the property. A car pulled up and a stranger got out, saying he’d come to see his mother’s childhood church. He looked at the tumbled down wall. ‘What do you reckon it would take to fix her?’ he asked. Hodge guessed: $1,500. The man wrote a check, hopped in his car and drove away. The repairs cost $1,400, leaving $100 for supplies for Long’s finest fresco, ‘The Last Supper.’"
Today, not only are the two churches thriving – so are the communities surrounding them. In fact, many old homes have been converted to quaint bed and breakfasts to accommodate the thousands of visitors who are drawn here every year from all across the country.
Since then, Long has become a sought-after fresco artist, both around the world and in North Carolina. Currently, Long has thirteen frescoes on walls and ceilings in the state, ranging from a depiction of the return of the Prodigal Son at Montreat College near Asheville to a fresco detailing the duties of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer in that city’s Law Enforcement Center.
What is it about these frescoes that gives them such a mysterious power?
Perhaps the secret lies in this journal entry which captures Long’s contagious passion for his art: "How I want to approach my work is with such a wonderful clean power – pure, simple paint to pull the spirit right out of the viewer and send him [or her] heady back into the everyday!"
For a detailed listing and photos of Benjamin Long’s frescoes in North Carolina, along with directions on where to find them, please see http://www.benlongfrescotrail.org/locations.html
added: December 10, 2008
updated: July 8, 2009
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