Tucker Cooke and the School of Athens

At 9pm on February 2, 2007 a choral group sang in the Highsmith Union Building, as two people worked ropes to lower a tarp.

The tarp was covering “The School of Athens,” a mural that was the result of two years’ work by students, faculty, and community members, operating under the direction of UNC Asheville Professor of Art, S. Tucker Cooke.

S. Tucker Cooker, 1998 [UA13.1]
The mural was a full scale reproduction of the 16th century Vatican fresco by Raphael.

Rapid River Art Magazine (November 2005) reported that when Cooke was asked for ideas for artwork for the expanded Highsmith building, (see our last blog for more information), the School of Athens came to mind, “Because it is the quintessential painting about liberal arts.” The mural represents art, music, mathematics, astrology, philosophy, politics, and astronomy, and includes people such as Socrates, Plato, and Michelangelo.

Cooke did however include some local color in his version, in the form of two UNC Asheville bulldogs sitting together in the lower left corner.

The mural was created in stages.

Using books and drawings of the Vatican fresco, Cooke first photocopied and enlarged Raphael’s line drawings, and then divided these into eight inch squares, from which volunteers produced scale drawings in graphite. The scale drawings were then enlarged to ten inch squares from which volunteers produced brown, white and black paintings called grisailles.

Next, the grisailles were used to paint colored twelve inch square in acrylic. A slide was made of each acrylic square, and the slide was then projected onto a four feet square canvas, so that outlines could be drawn from the projected image. Finally, these outlines were filled in using acrylic paint, and the canvases hung on the wall in sequence.

Cooke told Rapid River Art Magazine that the seemingly tedious process was necessary, because “Drawings help you understand the structure of the composition before starting the final piece.”

 

The team at work (Tucker Cooke, standing) [pbs33_213a]
The group of people working on the mural met and worked daily on the third floor of Highsmith, and the artists asked each other for advice, and critiqued each other’s work. Cooke (Blue Banner, February 2, 2006) considered “There is no sense of ownership, because everybody worked on some of the squares. Somebody can do the drapery, somebody else does feet, and somebody else does hands.” Cooke also said the project brought people together, with students working alongside seniors from OLLI and getting into “conversations about everything you can imagine in the world.”

Positioning the small squares [pub8086]
The completed mural soars almost 50 feet above the food court floor, and is thought to be one of the largest recreations of the School of Athens in the world.

The mural in Highsmith food court [Courtesy of Communications and Marketing]
On the day the mural was unveiled, the gallery in Owen Hall was named in honor of Cooke, who retired from UNC Asheville in May 2007, after over 40 years at the university, serving as chair of the art department from 1971 until 2004.

Cooke had come to Asheville-Biltmore College in the fall of 1966, as an instructor in art, immediately after graduating with a MFA from the University of Georgia.

Tucker Cooke, Summit 1967

During his time at A-B College and UNC Asheville, Cooke was instrumental in expanding the art department in both size and reputation, and still found time to stage numerous one-man shows, take part in juried exhibitions, and contribute to civic art works.

In 1995, he received a distinguished teaching award from the university, and co-designed a new Chancellor’s Medallion for the installation of Chancellor Patsy Reed.

And, in May 2000, he was awarded the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts, the highest award a civilian can receive from the Governor of North Carolina, for “his art and his ability to teach using personal experience.”

A number of Cooke’s works are part of the permanent exhibition at the Asheville Art Museum.

As our last blog described, the Highsmith Student Union is currently undergoing further renovations. Fortunately, these will not impact the School of Athens mural.

 

  • Colin Reeve, Special Collections

Constructive Destruction – Operation Highsmith

Highsmith and Highrise, 1984
Highsmith University Center & Highrise (now Founders Hall) in 1984 [bdg8040_001]
It is probably fortunate that UNC Asheville does not regularly feature in the pages of The Fire and Rescue Journal, published by the NC Department of Insurance, Office of the State Fire Marshall, but in the fall of 2002 the university made the front page.

The reason was Operation Highsmith, described as “the State’s largest terrorism and structural collapse exercise,” which the Office of the State Fire Marshall had organized during May 20-24, 2002.

For five days the campus’ Highsmith Center hosted 250 personnel from response teams from local, state and federal agencies across North Carolina, as they participated in, “mock drills and exercises involving simulations of hazardous materials leaks, bioterrorism events, terrorist attacks, and hostage and bomb scenarios.” Sections of the building were also demolished so that rescuers could practice working with heavy machinery.

There are no photographs of the exercise in the University Archives, but The Fire and Rescue Journal described teams wrangling with “refrigerators, concrete jersey barriers, lumber and ropes,” and maneuvering “cranes, Bobcat tractors, saws and welding torches.” A rescue dog was even lowered into the building through a hole in the roof.

Thankfully, neither the dog nor anyone else, seems to have been harmed during the exercise.

Students had left campus for the summer, and Highsmith’s occupants had been relocated to the Dining Hall. But, there seems to have been some spectators, as the Blue Banner reported a viewing area being provided for the media and general public to observe the exercises.

The operation had been prompted by events of September 11, 2001, which had made all emergency departments aware of the need to be prepared for any terrorist attacks in North Carolina. The Highsmith Center was already scheduled for a “massive” renovation project during the summer of 2002, and the 35,000 square foot building therefore provided “an ideal and rare setting.”

Highsmith, 1981
Highsmith University Center & Highrise, Under Construction, “Summit” 1981 [bdg5718]
The William E. Highsmith University Center was dedicated on April 1, 1984. The Asheville Citizen reported how, “more than 400 people braved chilly spring winds” to honor Chancellor Highsmith, who was retiring at the end of June 1984, after a total of 22 years as Chancellor of UNC Asheville, and President of its predecessor, Asheville-Biltmore College.

Highsmith dedication, 1984
Dedication Program, 1984 [UA13.1]
It was Highsmith who, in June 1980, had started construction on the project when he drove a bulldozer for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Center and adjacent Highrise dormitory building.

The Center was designed to house the university dining hall, meeting and recreation rooms, lockers for commuting students, television viewing rooms, vending machines, the university store, and radio station. A pre-construction document described the Center serving “as the foundation of campus cultural life” by allowing students to be together in “non-academic contexts,” and it “should unite commuter students with campus residents.”

Dantes entrance
Dante’s was a feature of Highsmith in the 1990s [bdg8043_006]
Dantes
Dante’s. Definitely a “non-academic context” [bdg8043_007]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, by 1997 the Highsmith Center’s facilities had become inadequate and the Board of Trustees designated the renovation and expansion of the building “as the campus’ first priority for capital funding.” Of particular concern was lack of space for students “to do their programs and have their meetings.”

In 1997, 950 students lived on campus, compared to 400 in 1982, and it was anticipated the number would grow to 1,100 by 1999. Total enrollment also grew, from 2,520 in 1982 to 3,170 in 1997, with student involvement in campus activities growing along with enrollment.

Plans were drawn up to renovate the existing center, and add a further 46,000 square feet, to more than double the size of the building.

Project Update, 1999
The Proposed Project [UA13.3]
It was not just a matter of space though, the condition of the building was also causing problems. This was illustrated on October 16, 1997 when the Asheville Citizen-Times showed tarps being used in the bookstore to protect merchandise from rainwater dripping through a leaky roof.

Highsmith Bookstore
University Bookstore (without tarps), not dated [bdg8048_002]
Despite such obvious problems, the 1997 Session of the NC General Assembly did not approve funding for work to Highsmith. However, the passage of the 2000 Higher Education Bond Referendum did allow the project to become a reality, with $11.5 million of the $15.5 million project cost being funded through Higher Education Bonds.

Which brings us back to Operation Highsmith.

After the emergency exercise was completed, construction work began in earnest, and on October 14, 2004, the new Highsmith University Union was dedicated. SGA President Porscha Yount described the Union building as “just amazing.”

Dedication 2004
Dedication Program, 2004 [UA13.1]
But nothing is ever constant, and in spring 2017, renovations to the Highsmith Student Union began. These will provide meeting spaces and open areas for student organizations, provide areas for galleries, and a coffee shop. A large multi-purpose room between Highsmith and the adjacent Brown Hall will “bridge” the two buildings. Construction will continue through summer 2018.

This time though it seems, no dogs will be lowered through the roof.

  • Colin Reeve, Special Collections