A Message For Us All

BY Sally Treadwell

Benjamin F. Long IV’s monumental new fresco Suffer the Little Children is drawing art lovers from across North Carolina and far beyond to what may seem an unlikely destination the E.H. Sloop Chapel at Crossnore School in the tiny town of Crossnore NC.

Founded in 1913 the Crossnore School is a private Non-Profit children’s home and school nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina serving children ages 2-9 who because of circumstances beyond their control can no longer live at home.

Visitors arrived at the children’s school by the carload last June—as many as 50 people a day—to watch the disciplined and exacting process of the fresco’s creation. Now that the work of art is finished they still come to gaze at this modern example of an ancient art form that until relatively recently scarcely existed in this country.

“It’s a marvelous art form—very physical very demanding ” said Long a North Carolina native speaking from Tuscany Italy where he lives for part of the year. “You have such a short period of time to create what you need. It demands real focus. It’s not a painting on the wall; it’s a painting in the wall. It creates its own luminosity.”

Born in Statesville Long started out studying creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill but quickly realized that writing was a second-best choice. He’d always wanted to paint although he had absolutely no interest in the prevalent abstract expressionism of the time—work that he felt couldn’t hold a candle to the paintings of masters like Velasquez and Rembrandt.

Then much to his surprise he discovered that the Art Students League of New York was still in existence. His grandfather painter McKendree Robbins Long had studied there and Long decided to follow in his footsteps.

He lasted a year. Although he got some good instruction on anatomy he grew frustrated with the amount of time he wasted waiting for teachers to get around to critiquing his work.

“It seemed to me ” he said “that the best way to do it was the way they used to do it in the Old World—apprenticing yourself to one of the masters. You have that constant contact instead of waiting for teachers to show up and you see how the master works out his own problems.” Before shipping off to Vietnam where he served first as a Marine infantry officer and then as a military artist Long happened to pick up a book about renowned painter Pietro Annigoni. He knew that if he was going to become an artist after three years in the military he would have to apprentice with “someone really inspiring ” and Annigoni’s work was impressive.

Long stuck with his vision. Three years later Annigoni took a little convincing but finally agreed to take Long on as his apprentice. In those last years of his career however Annigoni had decided to devote his time to painting religious frescoes in churches. “I get a little bored with human vanity ” he once famously said. “I honestly prefer these old saints of mine.”

Long whose paintings and frescoes are now well-known in the U.S. Italy and France rolled with the change in focus and soaked up the whole intricate and demanding process falling in love with it along the way.

Dr. Phyllis Crain the school’s director was holding a young student on her lap in the chapel one day when the child confided “I don’t have anybody who loves me. Even my cat ran away.”

Crain was struck with the need to provide the children with an image of a Father whose arms are always open to them. She wanted it to be on the back wall of the chapel so that it would be the last thing they saw as they left—an image that they could hold in their hearts and minds through the week. She loved Long’s work but thought it well out of reach. Generous supporters of the school however were willing to help her realize her dream.

There was no difficulty finding the theme. Jesus’ words from Mark 10:14 the Bible verse in which Jesus chides His disciples for trying to stop little children from bothering Him perfectly reflects the school’s mission to offer a loving haven to the children of families in crisis: “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Long’s 16-by-9-foot fresco shows Christ welcoming children into His arms while the adults slightly shadowed look on. “The grown-ups are literally and figuratively in the dark ” explained Laura Laughridge the school’s director of advancement and compliance. “But the old lady in the corner is illuminated like the innocent children showing that it’s never too late to come to God and that we become more childlike as we age.”

Long always uses real-life models so naturally many of the children from the Crossnore School are featured in the painting. “There was a strong feeling of group participation ” he said. “The rapport with the children was wonderful. They were really enthusiastic about sitting and they weren’t at all squiggly like you’d normally expect.”

For the students it was an event to remember. “It was amazing ” said Patricia 18 who is portrayed in one corner of the painting. “Mr. Long and his assistants all sketched me. They made me feel so welcome and I got to go up on the scaffolding and watch while they were actually painting me. People come into the coffee shop all the time and ask if that’s me in the fresco. Someone even asked for my autograph! It made me feel special—when I do get married it will be in this chapel and I can bring my kids here and show them too.”

“It was a very active process ” said Laughridge. “Fifty or more people showed up to watch every day and some came back several times during the process. Everyone was fascinated. When he [Long] painted Jesus though that was very private—he stayed up until 5:00 a.m. painting.”

Laughridge feels that the work itself left a big mark on the campus. “They were so good to all the kids and really fit in with our life. They were never too busy to talk. What they did was very exacting but they had fun while they were doing it and the children saw that.”

The work has paid dividends that weren’t originally anticipated bringing many customers to the Miracle Grounds coffee shop the school’s vocational “classroom.” Fresco viewers are thrilled to find that they can get a perfectly brewed cup of Sumatra and a freshly made sandwich right there in Crossnore and as a bonus they can explore the Weaving Room and Gallery and check out the Thrift Store too.

Much more importantly though it’s brought great awareness of the school’s mission. “We’ve had a little criticism ” said Laughridge. “Some people have asked why we used the money for a fresco when we could have used it to put a coat on a child’s back or to feed someone. But this is a lasting tribute to our mission; it’s our calling card to the world. It tells people that these children are in the world and need help. People come here to see the fresco and are moved by it but then they learn about the school and — some of them — are also moved to help us.”

What more could the painter have wished for? “You try to find the resonant deep feeling and match it with your imagery ” said Long a father of five. “The only thing you can ever hope for is that you got your artistic intentions across—if it can move someone then you can feel that your endeavor has found fruition and succeeded.”

Article and artwork originally featured in High Country Magazine Volume 2 issue 4.

Following the Fresco Trail

An entrancing trail of nine magnificent frescoes painted by internationally acclaimed American fresco master Benjamin F. Long IV awaits you in the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (BRNHA). The trail will lead you to the charming western North Carolina mountain towns of Glendale Springs Crossnore Wilkesboro Morganton West Jefferson and Montreat home to Billy and Ruth Graham. At each location you’ll be reminded of Italy where travelers roaming off the beaten track are amazed by glorious works of art in obscure country churches. Five more magnificent Ben Long frescoes can be found in Statesville and Charlotte.

Finding the frescoes is easy. Just pick up the fresco trail brochure that gives detailed instructions for reaching each of the locations—when in the mountain area you’ll find it at any Parkway Visitor Center town chamber of commerce or fresco site. Or to plan your visits in advance call (828) 687-7234 or visit
www.benlongfrescotrail.org for detailed information about the works themselves and other nearby points of interest too.

The brochure was produced with the support of a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. “It was a perfect project for our grants ” said Penn Dameron BRNHA’s director. “It’s a multi-county partnership and it helps to promote sites that have been identified as cultural treasures. It’s long overdue in fact and it’s really helped to increase awareness of these wonderful frescoes.”

What is a Buon Fresco?

It all starts with a violent roiling and hissing as powdered lime and water are blended into a loose slush by a worker wearing protective gear against the 400-degree splatters of wet lime. Then the lime mixture must sit preferably in an underground tank until the crystals have broken down into a smooth plaster suitable for painting a process known as slaking. “Ideally you leave it for at least two years ” said internationally acclaimed fresco artist Ben Long. “The longer it sits the more buttery it becomes. That creates a much more pleasing quality of paint.”

Four to six months before the fresco will actually be painted Long begins making many sketches of his models and creating a very precise compositional drawing on a scale of 1-inch to 1-foot. He might then further refine his ideas with more detailed portraits and then with an oil color study that will help him to decide which color pigments will be needed.

Meanwhile workmen and apprentices prepare the surface. In the Crossnore chapel this meant consulting with an architect—a large fresco can weigh thousands of pounds—and removing a section of the wormy chestnut paneling some of which was reused as a frame for the fresco. A steel frame and wire mesh were used to hold a thick scratch coat made of partially slaked lime and sand trowelled on in several layers.

The artist and his assistants prepare a “cartoon.” This is a full-scale drawing on gridded sheets of paper transferred from the small-scale compositional drawing. They trace the cartoon punch holes along the outlines of the main elements and mount the tracing on the prepared scratch coat. Then they “pounce ” or tap a gauzy bag of powdered red earth pigment along the punched holes to create a connect-the-dots outline. This under-drawing is called the sinopia like the pigment that is used. At this point the artist can stand back and look at the whole drawing in place. “If anything is wrong it’s a whole lot easier to fix it then ” said Long wryly.

The picture is divided out into giornate sections of work that can be completed in one day. Brushes of every size are laid out. A colorist starts the laborious process of grinding pigment to be suspended in distilled water: cobalt sienna ultramarine gold ocher … colors must be intense because they will be rapidly absorbed into the wet plaster and will lighten hour by hour as the wall dries.

Each night the section of wall that will be the next day’s giornata is heavily misted. The next day a mason applies the intonaco of a one-eighth-inch lime plaster skim coat ready to be painted during the golden window of a few hours when the paint is immediately absorbed into the wall. He extends the intonaco a little over the day lines so that the artist can trim the edges evenly at the end of the day. By the time the fresco is finished the day lines will be rendered virtually invisible.

As the painted lime plaster dries it carbonizes and forms an extremely hard surface of calcium carbonate making the fresco quite literally part of the wall.