The Fine Art Museum at Western Carolina University will present the student- and faculty-curated exhibit “George Masa (1881-1933): Vision of the Mountains” Aug. 1 through Sept. 18 in conjunction with the 75th anniversary celebration of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Masa, a Japanese immigrant with no known family who came to the United States seeking his fortune, explored the mountains of Western North Carolina as a photographer and friend of Horace Kephart, author of “Our Southern Highlanders.” He became one of the defining figures in the mapping and preservation of the park.
Although Masa has been a popular topic as of late, both in print and on museum walls, the Fine Art Museum offers something special in its own exhibit, said Martin DeWitt, museum director.
“Unique to the exhibit at the Fine Art Museum is a small selection of tiny mountain flora study photos by George Masa, possibly made for future postcard printing,” DeWitt said.
Masa once worked at the Grove Park Inn; however, he opened his own business, Plateau Studios in 1919. Covering news events and selling postcards of Asheville and the Smokies brought him fair financial success, allowing him to spend more time in the mountains he loved.
The mountain flora photos were selected from the special collections at Western Carolina’s Hunter library. Special collections director George Frizzell worked with WCU School of Art and Design exhibition management students Britney Carroll, Meredith Harbin, Janine Paris, Mike Polomick and Meredith Shafer to select the Masa photographs and bring the exhibit’s design and presentation together.
“Masa was undoubtedly passionate about nature. Through his photographs, he shares his personal conversation with the mountains immersing anyone seeing his work in the conversation, in the experience of nature itself,” DeWitt said.
Seeing Masa’s photos from the field encouraged John D. Rockefeller to contribute the first $5 million toward the purchase of land for the park in 1927.
The exhibit also will feature a photo album circa 1925 titled “Mount Mitchell – Top of Eastern America Altitude 6,711 ft. Photographed by Asheville-Biltmore Film Co.,” an animated film company for which Masa worked, as well as several panoramic views of the area.
“These are all small photographs, most unidentified though attributed to Masa, 8 by 10 inches and smaller, that offer intimate look at nature’s profound grandeur,” DeWitt said.
Museum hours during the summer are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call 828.227.3591.