The last thing I expected to find at the Haywood Street mission in Asheville, N.C., when my husband, David, and I visited last year was a Renaissance-style fresco glowing on the wall behind the chapel altar – with modern-day models. Painted by Christopher Holt, the masterpiece portrays the life-giving stories of some of the community’s most vulnerable people assisted by the service organization.
I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
“There’s a fresco trail in the Blue Ridge right outside of Asheville,” Brook van der Linde, Haywood Street’s chief storyteller, told me, gauging my interest.
The medium made famous by Michelangelo, da Vinci and Fra Angelico, frescoing is a delicate process that entails crushing pigments and painting them into wet plaster before it dries. While I had seen frescoes throughout Italy and France, I had never heard of any in the United States.
Yes, I was interested.
And that’s how, just before the world shut down in March 2020, David and I found ourselves on a treasure hunt of sorts, driving on twisty mountain byways in the rugged, village-dotted Blue Ridge countryside north of Asheville, about 425 miles from our northern Virginia home, seeking some of the world’s most masterful frescoes along the Benjamin F. Long IV Fresco Trail. The good news is the sites are open again, observing state public health mandates including social distancing and wearing masks indoors.
Our first stop: Morganton, dubbed a mini-Asheville with its wineries, brewpubs and restaurants. Here, the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium (CoMMA) showcases the “Sacred Dance and the Muses,” portraying the nine Greek muses, in the building’s lobby. I looked expectantly at the walls before realizing it was up on the ceiling, a la Sistine Chapel.
Viewing chairs on a slowly rotating platform allow a comfortable, neck-relaxed perusal. Sitting back, I studied how a gold-leaf ribbon weaves together the composition, drawing the eye from one muse to the next, to clouds, to drama masks, to a classical temple cradling several different people (and a cat). On one side, an older man crouches, paintbrushes in hand.
“That’s Ben Long,” said Mike Musick, CoMMA’s director. He explained how the artist uses local models – including himself – in all his works.
I was blown away by the immensity of this work, and wondered, how does anyone become an Italianesque fresco painter these days?
“I always wanted to be an artist,” Long told me by phone the next week. “After studying at the Art Students League of New York and two Vietnam tours as combat artist, I moved to Florence to apprentice under foremost Renaissance-style fresco artist Pietro Annigoni.”
And then he wanted to bring the ancient art to his native North Carolina.
“But no one knew what I was talking about,” he said. “It was two or three years before I managed to get someone to agree to have one.”
And that was only because he offered it free. Today, there are 30 Long frescoes in the United States, some carrying price tags of more than $500,000. Fourteen, in 11 locations, are found on the Benjamin F. Long IV Fresco Trail in the Statesville-Charlotte region – nine of which David and I visited in this 275-mile ramble. (Holt, who painted the Haywood Street mission fresco, is Long’s student.)
Our next stop awaited about 45 miles west via Interstate 40 in bucolic Montreat, near Black Mountain. Here, the “Return of The Prodigal” radiates over the altar of the Chapel of the Prodigal, a mountain-Gothic building at Montreat College. It’s a lively scene, with the father and wayward son embracing as the older brother stews, the mother looks on and a village woman dances beneath a portico. Even a dog takes part in the action, seemingly anxious or perhaps confused.
We drove about 50 miles over rolling hills dotted with Christmas tree farms en route to our next stop, passing the Blue Ridge Parkway entrance with the option to take the slower, more scenic route. But we didn’t – we were eager to see our next fresco.
It was inside historic Sloop Chapel at the Crossnore School in Crossnore: “Suffer the Little Children,” painted in 2006. Crossnore’s longtime mission supports at-risk children, and the fresco is filled with kids sitting with Jesus – some modeled on Long’s sons.
“The night Ben did the face of Jesus, he painted ’til 5 a.m.,” said the docent, who has been with Crossnore 45-plus years. “He wanted it private.”
We spent the night in Blowing Rock, snuggled among mountain peaks. Galleries, shops and restaurants filled the cutesy Main Street, and we dined at the Speckled Trout Restaurant and Bottle Shop, where the almond-herb N.C. mountain trout was just one of the many ways the today-fresh fish was prepared.
Next morning, our quest took us into outdoorsy hinterlands, past ski resorts and a tree-fringed lake. The Blue Ridge Parkway flirted with us, though again we didn’t hop on. After about an hour we found St. Mary’s, a tiny mountain church in West Jefferson, dating from 1892, with three frescoes.
“The fresco on the left was Ben’s first, 1974,” said historian Don Long (unrelated to the artist). “Mary Great With Child.”
At a time when churches were reluctant to have a young, hippie-looking artist paint their walls, even for free, St. Mary’s accepted – and what a gift it received.
“When these were made, hordes of people came to see them,” said Deacon Shirley Long (also unrelated). Today, thousands of people visit the frescoes every year.
“John the Baptist,” to the altar’s right, was his second fresco, from 1976.
In the middle behind the altar rises the third, “The Mystery of Faith,” a powerful portrayal of Jesus on the cross painted in 1977, with a lustrous Jesus rising almost ghostlike behind.
“The frescoes are part of the church’s ministry,” Don Long said. “People leave the service with tears in their eyes.”
The next stop was Holy Trinity Episcopal Church just 10 miles away in Glendale Springs, another bitty chapel with my favorite fresco – “The Last Supper,” painted in 1980. Unlike da Vinci’s neat row of people sitting at the table, this one depicts the same apostles sitting about casually after the Passover Seder meal. Even Ben Long sits, to the far right, in the guise of Doubting Thomas.
“It was rumored that Ben was painting a nude Last Supper,” Deacon Shirley said. “The community stayed away until they realized that wasn’t happening. They then started pitching in, providing meals. It became a community event.”
We found our last frescoes about 20 miles south at St. Paul’s, on Wilkesboro’s highest hill. The 1848 chapel was expanded in the 1990s, and with it came two frescoes adorning its central common area, completed in 2002: “St. Paul’s Conversion” and “Paul in Prison.”
“Ben researched deeply to figure out a way to portray St. Paul with his own personal touch,” said Bill Hurd, the church docent. “Was Paul alone on the road to Damascus? Given Paul’s authority, he was given soldiers, armor and a big horse. He wouldn’t have been alone.”
Long never revealed his take on it. Indeed, the symbolism he embeds throughout his frescoes – two hidden crosses in the “Return of the Prodigal,” a cup on the cross in the “Mystery of Faith,” a floating “napkin” high above the diners in “The Last Supper” – he leaves to the viewer’s interpretation.
That said, he did share one secret to his creative process in our phone conversation: “You try to think about things, and other images creep in,” he told me. “Somehow you’re influenced.”
Well, that doesn’t really help much if you’re not a creative genius. But one thing I learned: Each fresco has a story – many stories – to tell, merging history with present day, making me ponder, providing inspiration, creating awe.
And that made me appreciate these frescoes even more.
If you go
Where to stay:
- Green Park Inn, 9239 Valley Blvd., Blowing Rock, 828-414-9230, greenparkinn.com – This historic, Victorian-style hotel just outside town was established in 1891. Rooms from $99.
- Mountainaire Inn & Log Cabins, 827 Main St., Blowing Rock, 828-295-7991, mountainaireinn.com – Centrally located on Main Street, the inn and cabins are simple but comfortable. Rooms from $69.
- Hyatt Place Asheville/Downtown, 199 Haywood St., Asheville, 828-505-8500, hyatt.com – Just up the street from the Haywood Street fresco, this comfortable hotel is within easy walking distance of downtown Asheville. Rooms from $127.
Where to eat:
- Root & Vine, 139 W. Union St., Morganton, 828-433-1540, rootandvinerestaurant.com – Locally sourced dishes and many wines are offered at this contemporary, stylish restaurant. Open Monday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 8:30 p.m. for dinner; Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m for brunch. Closed Wednesday. Entrees from $22.
- Speckled Trout Restaurant and Wine Shop, 922 Main St., Blowing Rock, 828-295-9819, thespeckledtrout.com – Expect fresh, local-ingredient takes on Southern standards and lots of trout. Open Thursday to Monday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Entrees from $16.
- Dooley’s Grill and Tavern, 102 E. Main St., Wilkesboro, 336-667-0800, dooleyswilkesboro.com – Locally owned tavern serves sandwiches, hamburgers and salads and is known for giant portions. Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Entrees from $8.95.
What to do:
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com