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 North Carolina’s most talented native sons: Ben Long of Asheville.
The story of how it all began is almost as compelling as the frescoes themselves, which can be found on the Ben F. Long IV Fresco Trail.
Long returned to North Carolina after years of studying fresco painting under master artist Pietro Annigoni in Florence, Italy. He was so passionate about his newly mastered craft that he told just about anyone who would listen that he would gladly donate his services – if they would 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.
Churches of the Frescoes
Faulton Hodge was the pastor of two small Episcopalian churches in the High Country 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 a 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 during the next several months is nothing short of miraculous.
On one of the St. Mary’s walls, Long appropriately wanted to paint an expectant Madonna and he found a perfect model nearby to give the resulting fresco even more reality. Long subsequently completed two more striking frescoes at St. Mary’s: John the Baptist and The Mystery of Faith, a striking crucifixion/resurrection scene.
As Long was completing these frescoes, an equally eerie event was unfolding over at Holy Trinity church, according to Sheila Turnage in her book Compass American Guide: North Carolina. A stranger pulled up to Holy Trinity saying it was his mother’s childhood church, and upon seeing the church’s dilapidated state, donated $1,500 – $1,400 to repair the church and $100 for the supplies for Long’s next fresco, The Lord's 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. There’s now a website devoted to the Ashe County frescoes.
More Ben Long Frescoes in North Carolina
Since then, Long has become a much sought-after fresco artist, both around the world and in North Carolina. Currently, there are more than a dozen of his frescoes on walls and ceilings across the state. Those include:
- A depiction of the return of the Prodigal Son at Montreat College near Asheville
- Frescoes of St. Paul at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro
- A fresco detailing the duties of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer in the city’s Law Enforcement Center
- Long’s largest work to date in the Queen City’s Bank of America Corporate Center