By Judy Williams
It’s 1967 and Margaret Gilbert is having lunch at the Monte Vista Hotel in Black Mountain. She and Olive Granger are going to talk about their plan to develop an Art League. Gilbert has been associated with a strong organization of artists in Pennsylvania and she and a few other local artists are longing to start such a group in the Swannanoa Valley. She and Granger will work together on the recruitment of members.
Before getting down to business, they talk about the premier of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and how the music of the day— songs like I’m a Believer by the Monkees, Happy Together by The Turtles and R-E-S-P-E-C-T by Aretha Franklin—supports their adventure of creating something new. The women get out their notepads and begin listing the artists—all painters of course—they plan to invite to an organizational meeting for what they want to call the Swannanoa Valley Art League.
This vignette serves as a window to the past, as the members of the current Swannanoa Valley Fine Arts League celebrate their 50th anniversary. Most of the artists recruited in 1967 were happy and able to give the time and energy required for the development of an art league in the Swannanoa Valley. Art was their passion, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only 11.2 percent of women were employed outside of the home.
The first meeting was organized with 16 members who met at the Monte Vista Hotel. During the 1967-68 season, 25 more members were recruited. They represented Black Mountain, Montreat, Swannanoa, Asheville, Morganton— and Holdenville, Oklahoma! Only one man, Carl Beust, was recorded for membership in the Art League in 1968. Later membership records show the notation: “We need more men!” (Of the 147 current members, 26 are men.)
One of the founding members was Mary McMurray, who served as the first treasurer, collecting dues of $3 per year. (Today, dues are still a bargain at $35 a year). Regular meetings, displays of work and varied art classes were held. Over time the group met and/or displayed their work at the Monte Vista, the Black Mountain Public Library, the Swannanoa Clubhouse (now the Public Library), members’ homes, the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, Black Mountain Presbyterian Church and even the McMurray Chevy Showroom. The Green House near the State Veterans Cemetery provided their first long-term home.
“There were hard times, but the League kept it together and kept going, although an Asheville league had folded,” says McMurray. The spirit within the group was robust and opportunities for participation in classes led by highly respected artists such as Sterling Edwards, Tom Jones, Douglas Grant, Tucker Cook and Joseph Vandermoor were many.
In 2011, after a year of investment of time, funds and the sweat equity of members, the Swannanoa Valley Fine Arts League, in cooperation with the Monte Vista Hotel, was able to move into what is now known as the Red House, at 310 West State Street in Black Mountain. One of the galleries in the studio and display space is named after Mary McMurray.
We may no longer be clad in shift dresses with gloves or be sporting beehive or flip hairdos, but the League members are grateful for the dedication of those who gave their energies and care to this group through the years. And they look forward to continuing the legacy of robust participation.
For more information, visit svfalarts.org.