American Fresco PaintingOf all the art mediums that have migrated to this country from our European artistic traditions, one simply did not make the cut. Oil painting, watercolour, egg tempera, stone carving, bronze casting, and nearly every conceivable style and movement made the transition to these shores except for the art of true fresco painting. Even mural painting flourished in the depression era, but these paintings were more akin to canvas paintings applied to dry plaster walls much like wallpaper. True fresco is ground earth-tone pigments applied to damp plaster. What little true fresco painting that was done in this country in the 1930s came not from Europe, but from Mexico in the work of Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Siqueiros. Perhaps the reason for this is that while true fresco flourished in Europe during the 1500s and 1600s, by the time Europe began to export art and artists, the medium had begun to fade from favour to be replaced by large-scale canvas painting.
During the past 25 years however, true fresco has arrived in this country, emigrating from Italy in the work of an American artist by the name of Ben Long, and his associate, Chuck Kapsner. (Better late than never.) It first came ashore in the unlikely venue of Beaver Creek in the western hills of North Carolina. Ben Long is not an immigrant. The grandson/student of a portrait painter turned Presbyterian minister turned portrait painter in retirement, Long was classically trained, attending the Art Students' League in New York before serving a term as a Marine Corps artist in Vietnam. There he became interested in the art of true fresco. After the war, he spent seven years as an apprentice to the leading fresco painter in Italy, Pietro Annigoni, where he worked with the master on several projects as well as completing others on his own. It was there he met his associate, Chuck Kapsner, and collaborated with him on additional commissions it what he terms an "art loving country".
In returning home and working as a portrait painter in oils, Long found he couldn't even "give away" a fresco. It took him two long years to arrange his first "commission" and even then he donated his time an effort in return for the cost of materials used. It was a 3'x6' hanging plaster panel entitled Mary Great With Child for the tiny Beaver Creek Episcopal congregation. The artist created it as a hanging panel so that if the congregation didn't like it, the work could be removed. Fortunately, they liked it a lot. It was highly acclaimed throughout the region. Long painted a companion piece of St. John the Baptist and shortly thereafter, a large-scale crucifixion for a nearby church. In 1974, his work in fresco both in this country and Italy led to numerous awards as well as a number of larger scale religious and secular commissions over the next 25 years, ranging from Catholic churches to banks and police stations. Unlike other art mediums which were essentially "exported" to this country as European artists arrived on these shores, true fresco, in the talent of Ben Long, had to be "imported".
Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 July 1998