Ashe County frescoes book signing

Longtime Ashe County resident Becky Burgess, left, reminisces with authors David B. Chiswell and Janet C. Pittard as they personalize a copy of their new book, ‘The Ashe County Frescoes of Benjamin F. Long IV,’ during a signing event at Florence Thomas Art School in West Jefferson on Saturday, July 10. Burgess said she has a ‘vested interest’ in the book as she recalled watching Long and his apprentices construct the fresco in Glendale — and that two of her friends’ husbands were models for two of the disciples. ‘It was exciting,’ she said.

WEST JEFFERSON — The frescoes by artist Benjamin F. Long IV in Ashe County today generate as much excitement among residents and visitors as they did when first completed in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, a new book by Janet C. Pittard and David B. Chiswell takes readers on an extensive and comprehensive look into the art and artisan, the craft and craftsman of those enduring works.

Commissioned by the Ashe County Frescoes Foundation — the organization tasked with protecting and preserving the frescoes at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Glendale Springs — “The Ashe County Frescoes of Benjamin F. Long IV” (McFarland & Company), includes extensive interviews with the artist and primary source research from the models, assistants, volunteers and observers of those early projects.

On July 10, Pittard and Chiswell were hosted by Florence Thomas Art School in West Jefferson for a signing event. The following is a review of the book:

The soul of Ashe County: ‘The Ashe County Frescoes of Benjamin F. Long IV’ (McFarland & Company) by Janet C. Pittard and David B. Chiswell

There is a challenge in translating works of art into print, a test made even more insurmountable when that art is the masterful frescoes found in Ashe County, N.C., and that print is a book laboring to describe and picture the historical evolution of four masterworks found in two tiny churches.

But as she did in outlining four generations of community healthcare in her local landmark book, “A Hospital for Ashe County,” Janet C. Pittard has bested the task, working here with co-author David B. Chiswell to produce a thin but richly detailed, full-color work taking readers beyond what the eye can behold.

Extensively researched and competently indexed, “The Ashe County Frescoes of Benjamin F. Long IV” reads like a luxurious travel tale. When you come to this in the introduction, “The story of Ben Long’s Ashe County frescoes begins with the arrival of the Episcopal Church in Ashe County around the mid-1800s,” you know you’ve settled into a comfortable tale nearly as old as those told by your grandfather on a long ago summer night with fireflies winking and blinking just off the front porch.

That the narrative is well researched is no surprise. Chiswell spent three decades in archival reference for the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

That the story is captivating is expected. Pittard, in addition to serving for 30 years in the North Carolina Governor’s Office, has authored a pair of books and more than 100 articles for Our State Magazine.

But taken together, there is no pair of writers better prepared or more inspired to tell the tale of a then-young artist who would go on to international acclaim, and the works he would bestow on a rural county in Western North Carolina.

That both Pittard and Chiswell call West Jefferson home adds not only legitimacy and authenticity to the work, they write with the ear of those who live in these mountains. Moving from history to technique, the authors draw us on an expository and pictorial journey through the Parish of the Holy Communion — the combined two Episcopal churches in Ashe County, St. Mary’s in West Jefferson and Holy Trinity in Glendale Springs, which host the frescoes — putting us in the first pew for a bird’s-eye view.

As beautifully reproduced are the photos in the book, after an initial reading it is likely that anyone with the ability will want to visit the frescoes for themselves. To that end, Pittard and Chiswell have donated copyright and royalties of the book to the Ashe County Frescoes Foundation, the organization that works to protect and preserve the works of art.

For Ashe County residents and the thousands who flock to the frescoes annually, the gifts keep coming.

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Tom Mayer is the executive editor of Mountain Times Publications, a group of five news newspapers, six websites and one monthly periodical in the High Country of North Carolina.

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