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 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 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, made a generous donation 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:
1 St. Mary's Episcopal Church
1 St. Mary's Episcopal ChurchWest JeffersonSee on map
See the first few frescoes Long painted in North Carolina here: Mary Great with Child, John the Baptist and Mystery of Faith.
2 Holy Trinity Church
2 Holy Trinity ChurchGlendale SpringsSee on map
Long and 20 of his students spent three months completing The Lord's Supper behind the altar of this church.
3 Montreat College
3 Montreat CollegeMontreatSee on map
Long prepped for years to paint Return of the Prodigal, which can be found at Montreat College's Chapel of the Prodigal.
4 St. Paul's Episcopal Church
4 St. Paul's Episcopal ChurchWilkesboroSee on map
Two of Long's frescoes, both depicting the story of St. Paul, can be found in the commons area of this church.
5 The Crossnore School
5 The Crossnore SchoolCrossnoreSee on map
The Crossnore School's mission is to provide a safe, stable learning environment for North Carolina children in crisis. Consequently, Suffer the Little Children includes a scripture reading, "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.” The fresco also features former students of the school.
6 Bank of America Corporate Center
6 Bank of America Corporate CenterCharlotteSee on map
A series of frescoes in the Queen City’s Bank of America Corporate Center is Long's largest work to date. The three related pieces depict the ancient philosophy of "Shingon": the belief in body, speech and mind.
7 St. Peter's Catholic Church
7 St. Peter's Catholic ChurchCharlotteSee on map
In 2002, a large portion of Long's fresco behind the main altar fell due to construction surrounding the church, and it was unable to be repaired. But framed portions of the original fresco still adorn various parts of the church.
8 TransAmerica Dome
8 TransAmerica DomeCharlotteSee on map
Continuum was Long's first dome and exterior fresco, and it represents the continuous cycle of life and death.
9 First Presbyterian Church
9 First Presbyterian ChurchCharlotteSee on map
Located in the entrance hall of the fellowship building, The Parable of the Good Samaritan is 28 feet long and painted in true 15th-century fresco style.
10 Law Enforcement Center
10 Law Enforcement CenterCharlotteSee on map
Long's final fresco in Charlotte, in the Law Enforcement Center's lobby, details the duties of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.
11 Statesville Civic Center
11 Statesville Civic CenterStatesvilleSee on map
Long uses Hecate, a Greek goddess associated with crossroads, to depict the crossroads of life in Images at the Crossroads.
12 City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium
12 City of Morganton Municipal AuditoriumMorgantonSee on map
The Nine Muses of Greek mythology served as Long's inspiration for this fresco on the ceiling of the atrium.
13 Wingate University
13 Wingate UniversityWingateSee on map
Housed in the entrance of the Hinson Gallery, True Art is to Conceal Art represents the idea that artistry and creativity can never be destroyed.