The High Country is home to two priceless pieces of art, frescoes done by world-renowned North Carolina based artist Benjamin F. Long IV: frescoes adorning two century-old churches in Ashe County. The frescoes are a part of the Ben Long Fresco Trail throughout North Carolina, and today are just as beautiful and vibrant as the day they were painted.
The term “Fresco” refers to a particular method of painting, in which the artist applies the paint directly onto wet plaster. The word comes from the Italian “affresco”, meaning fresh. The fresco technique has been in use for thousands of years, even before oil paints came into widespread use. A fresco is painted in small portions, as the plaster dries very quickly, requiring the artist to quickly and accurately transfer the paint to the wet plaster. As the plaster dries, it produces a chemical reaction called calcium carbonate, creating a crystalline, rock hard surface that not only binds the paint to the surface remarkably well but also causes the fresco art to seemingly glow from within.
Ben Long apprenticed himself to Italian master painter Pietro Annigoni in 1969, after serving two years in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. He learned under Annigoni’s tutelage for eight years and completed several major fresco pieces in that country. In 1978 he came back to America, and since that time has created over a dozen breathtaking frescoes in North Carolina. More information about the artist and the Ben Long Fresco Trail can be found HERE.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in West Jefferson was the first to receive fresco art. This church dates back to the very early 1900′s, and in addition to its frescoes, features stunning stained glass windows. The back wall of the sanctuary features three beautiful, life-size fresco images: Mary, Great With Child; John The Baptist; and The Mystery of Faith between them completed last. A local young teenager served as the facial model for Mary and Long’s pregnant wife provided the inspiration for the rest of her image. John the Baptist’s image and body was partially modeled from a young man assisting Long in his work.
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Glendale Springs became the home of the fresco “The Last Supper” in 1980. This church, dating back to 1901, sat unused from 1940 to 1980, when Father Hodge reopened its doors and agreed to allow Long to paint the fresco as a gift. It is said that Father Hodge accepted Long’s offer of a fresco without knowing what one was. “The Last Supper” stretches across the back wall of the sanctuary and shows that fateful meal in beautiful detail, including serving people. Local people served as models for all the figures except for Judas Iscariot, Thomas, Jesus Christ, and the serving girl. The artist used his own likeness as the model for Thomas. During the painting process, a rumor began circulating around the community that the figures were being depicted as nude. While obviously untrue, it generated a lot of interest and caused several curious townspeople to stop by and see the work in progress
Downstairs in the Holy Trinity Church you will find another painting depicting Christ being sent out on His mission; along with other pieces of art completed by Long’s students while he was working on The Last Supper; and a columbarium, a place of reflection for the survivors of loved ones interred in the crypt.
The frescoes have inspired and comforted countless visitors in the years they have adorned the walls of these beautiful churches and are well worth the drive from the Boone area to view these priceless works. During your visit to Ashe County, be sure to visit other Ashe County destinations such as Mount Jefferson State Park, Smoky Mountain BBQ, and Ashe County Cheese.
Where Are They?
St. Marys Episcopal Church: 400 Beaver Creek School Road, West Jefferson NC 28694
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church: JW Luke Road, West Jefferson NC 28694
The route to get from one church to another from the Boone area is very scenic and peaceful. The best way for visiting during warmer months is to take the Blue Ridge Parkway north to Milepost 259 and exit at the Northwest Trading Post, now known as Sally Mae’s on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Take Trading Post Road to its end (going through the 4-way intersection with Hwy 16) and turn right onto JW Luke Road. Holy Trinity Church is less than a quarter mile up on the right, and there are several parking spaces at the restaurant & craft store across the street. (Note that Google Maps does not have the church marked in the correct place!) From Holy Trinity, take Hwy 16 for several miles to the T-intersection with Hwy 88, and turn left. Follow Hwy 88 all the way to its intersection with Hwy 163 to the left and Hwy 221/194 to the right, and turn right, then take the first left onto Beaver Creek School Road. The church is on the right, half a mile down the road. You can also take Hwy 221 north from the Boone area and proceed to the churches from there.
Rates & Hours:
The churches are open 24/7 and are free to enter, although donations are appreciated.
All ages are welcome to take in the beauty of the fresco art pieces. The churches have been somewhat retrofitted to be handicap accessible, although guests in a motorized wheelchair may find it difficult to navigate sharp corners and narrow doorways in these century-old buildings. There is a stepping-stone path through the grass to the level entry at St. Mary’s, and a ramp has been built onto the side of Holy Trinity for disabled guests.
All text and photos copyright 2014 Cassandra Hartley, Blue Ridge NC Guide. No portion of this article is to be copied, saved, or otherwise distributed without express written consent. Sharing is encouraged using the designated social media sharing buttons at the bottom of this article. Photos for this post provided by our sister site Memories by Cassandra Lea Photography. Author received no compensation, monetary or otherwise, in exchange for this article.