Richards: The Fire Within (NR) ****
Directed by: Richard Kane
Starring: M.C. Richards, Marjory Bankson, Julia Connor, Merce
Cunningham, Arthur Penn, Robert Turner
This short documentary (62 minutes) on painter, poet, sculptor,
writer, philosopher and visionary M.C. Richards is of local interest
because of Richards' connections to Black Mountain College –
that bygone experimental school that she preferred to a tenured
position at the University of Chicago.
Her coming to BMC was a bold move; as M.C. Richards: The Fire
Within points out, there was little money and no security in doing
so. She became part of BMC during its latter days, when the school
was moving away from its communal-styled roots and more toward
a definition of itself as an artist outpost. BMC was then on the
verge of an artistic explosion, home not just to Richards, but
also to Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem
de Kooning and others who would profoundly impact our culture.
Fuller built his first geodesic dome there, while Cage and Cunningham
were responsible for several music and dance collaborations. And
according to those interviewed in this documentary, Richards was
a major guiding voice behind it all – and behind BMC moving
America to the forefront of the art world at that late date in
There may be some romanticizing at work here. As uniquely American
as this artistic outburst may have been, its roots were still
strongly European (stretching, most notably, to Germany's Bauhaus
school); moreover, Richards' contributions may be a bit overstated.
Still, the film is about her and not the school itself; and as
she's presented here, she certainly does embody the whole idea
of a reaction to traditional notions of education. Richards' very
rejection of the University of Chicago – with its emphasis
on grades and competition rather than what she felt learning was
truly about – attests to this. As the narration puts it:
"Her art was seeing the invisible, hearing the inaudible,
unleashing the creative spirit."
The Fire Within is a portrait of a remarkable woman whose greatest
artistic ability was perhaps to find the artist in others (despite
her own impressive output as a writer, painter and potter). Most
of the film centers on Richards' last years, including footage
of her as she taught, wrote and worked with many special-needs
adults at a Camphill Village in Pennsylvania; Richards touched
the creative spark in them while working on her own art at the
same time. The film offers us a striking picture of a woman who
was as down-to-earth and forthright as they come, but who was
likewise a dreamy visionary. She was a contradiction, and a fascinating
On film, Richards often speaks in blunt terms. She admits to growing
to hate a painting she's done for the benefit of the camera: It
didn't come from within, she explains, but from her desire to
accommodate the filmmaker. Too, she comments on people telling
her how difficult it is to live with the mentally challenged,
noting that "it's harder for them to live with themselves."
Richards seems to radiate life. Her indomitable spirit –
a culmination of her own strange dichotomy as both realist and
visionary – is at the core of the film. There's no sense
of inner conflict with her; rather, the artist seems wholly at
peace with both sides of her nature. "Are you going to be
an earthly person – practical, down-to-earth, and get-to-it?"
she asks early in the film. "Or are you going to be a dreamer,
a visionary? Why can't we be both? And we can be, and we shouldn't
be talked out of it. I'm both. Don't tell me I have to choose.
I don't have to choose."
While the film very effectively presents its scenes with a range
of colors that are remarkably similar to those in her paintings,
in the end, it doesn't really matter whether or not you like this
woman's art; what matters is Richards herself. The Fire Within
is that rare artist documentary about the person behind the art.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Fine Arts Theatre will hold a single screening of M.C. Richards:
The Fire Within at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 29, 2004.]
to read the original article on Mountain Xpress.