The story of North Carolina’s Fresco Trail began in 1973 with the serendipitous meeting of a newly minted Episcopal priest, Father Faulton Hodge, and an ambitious young artist, Benjamin F. Long IV.
At the time, Father Hodge was working tirelessly to rebuild his parish and its two small historic churches, located in isolated areas of Ashe and Allegheny counties in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Long, who had recently returned from a multi-year apprenticeship with the noted Italian portrait and fresco painter, Pietro Annigoni, was in search of a church in his home state that would grant him permission to produce a fresco on an interior sanctuary wall.
As relationships are often built on mutual needs, the two men quickly struck a bargain. Despite the fact that Father Hodge had no money to pay Long for materials or labor, the artist was content with simply having his first fresco commission in his home state. Long created a fresco entitled Mary, Great with Child on a panel that would hang in Saint Mary’s Church at Beaver Creek.
The work was well-received by parishioners, and soon Long added two more frescoes to the main sanctuary wall inside St. Mary’s that beautifully filled the space directly behind the alter. Local and international media followed, bringing Father Hodge more parishioners and artist Ben Long quite a degree of renown as a realist painter who was also skilled in the ancient art of fresco.
Long would go on to paint his interpretation of The Last Supper in Father Hodge’s second church, Holy Trinity, in Glendale Springs. By this time, word of the painter’s frescoes had spread to the extent that Long ended up with a team of twenty student-artists from around the USA and abroad to assist him.
Between 1974 and 1980, Long achieved notoriety by completing the first frescoes (four) in this region of the country, while Father Hodge became famous in his own right and grew his flock many fold from its humble beginnings. The serendipity of their meeting had been sweet indeed.
Nice paintings, but what’s the big deal?
Fresco is an ancient medium in art. The first frescoes were created in Syria in the 18th century BC, but they are more closely associated with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The fresco artistic tradition saw an especially prolific period during the Italian Renaissance.
Some of the world’s greatest art treasures, such as Michael Angelo’s ceiling in the Vatican’s fabled Sistine Chapel, are frescoes. Due to advanced skills required in properly preparing the surface before painting, the vast majority of the world’s frescoes are found in Europe, particularly in Italy.
The fresco process is labor intensive (see below) and murals painted on a dry wall’s surface are far more common. For me personally, frescoes possess a magical quality due to the varied hues and softened lines that result from the drying process as the paint is pulled into the plaster wall itself.
While there are fine examples of fresco in significant buildings in the USA such as those painted by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi in the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, it’s quite rare to run across such works of art in rural areas of the country. Rarer still is finding a large collection of frescoes in the USA that are all located within a 2-hour driving radius and that were conceived and executed by an American artist.
The Fresco Process
Fresco – from the Italian word ‘affresco’ (meaning fresh) – refers to the process of painting on plaster and the resulting product. The fresco process is a long and tedious one involving the application of three layers.
Step 1) a base coat of plaster – lime mixed with sand and water – is applied to the wall.
Step 2) a finer coat of plaster -The Arricio- a red outline called the Senopia is transferred from the studio drawings.
Step 3) the final Layer is the Intonaco -one part line and one part sand – to which hand-ground pigments suspended in water are applied.
The artist must apply the pigments before the plaster dries. The fresco must be painted in sections called Giornata, Italian for ‘the work that can be done in a day’.
Pause and then more frescoes
Long returned to Europe to work for the next decade, but migrated back to North Carolina in the early 1990s to create three frescoes for the lobby of the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte, the head office of the USA’s second largest banking company. Remaining relevant to their corporate location, the titles of the triptych (three related works) panels are Making/Building, Chaos/Creativity and Planning/Knowledge. Each fresco panel measures 18 X 23 feet and it took Long and a team of nine assistants four months to complete the entire project.
If you’re interested in further interpretation of the previous three fresco panels from the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte, click here.
Between 1992 and 2006, painter Long completed nine additional frescoes in multiple towns and for a variety of secular and religious institutions in the western half of his home state. Along the way, many local people were used as models because the painter prefers to ‘paint from life’.
Long’s frescoes at all eleven locations can be visited by car. Brochures are available along with online details and directions from Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.
More information on Benjamin F. Long IV and his work can be found on the artist’s website below: