The idea to put a fresco on the gallery ceiling of CoMMA was conceived by the theater's first director, Bill Wilson. Such a massive project was going to take a lot of help from local residents, and the City of Morganton assembled a funding group, the Burke County Endowment for the Arts. The group solicited donations from businesses, industry, individuals, & other contributing sources.
Concept sketches and drawings were developed in 2003, and at the same time, a new roof system was added to the Gallery and the existing ceiling was removed to make way for the mesh and plaster coats that would accept the fresco. Contemporary fresco master Ben Long, with a team of three master artists and six apprentices, started to apply the final coat of wet plaster on January 12, 2004. Long began the painting on January 13, 2004. The project was completed on April 19, 2004.
When Long was commissioned to decorate the ceiling in the atrium of the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium, he selected the nine muses because of their legendary role in inspiring all human endeavors in the arts and sciences. The Muses were of divine parentage, probably the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. They were courtiers of the divinities who inhabited Mount Olympus, and they served as companions of Apollo in his aspect as the god of music.
The substantial size of the atrium ceiling-it measures roughly 24 by 33 feet-gave Long the opportunity to create one of the largest frescoes in his 30-year career. It also presented him a compositional problem that he solved by offsetting into one side of the fresco two formidable images of masks representing the Greek symbols of comedy and tragedy. The latter mask peers mournfully out from behind the former, which wears an almost maniacal grin, and both masks trail gold ribbons that sinuously thread their way through the center of the composition, thereby uniting its various components.
The fresco is anchored in the ceiling's southwest corner by elements of classical architecture that serve as an outdoor setting for a diverse gathering of people and animals. It is interesting to note, as an aside, that these figures are closely modeled on Long's assistants, friends, members of his family and family pets, as well as himself. That is Long seated on the stairs, holding a handful of paintbrushes and looking exhausted, as he no doubt was upon completing this ambitious commission. Nearby, a dark-suited man modeled after Sam Gray-writer, friend of the artist and director of the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort, North Carolina-is surrounded by a cloud of smoke and flames signifying inspiration. On the opposite side of the group of mortals from the portrait of Gray, Long has portrayed his teacher, Italian fresco master Pietro Annigoni, standing on the horizon with one arm upraised.
Presiding over this earthbound portion of the composition is a domed gazebo oriented diagonally so that it draws the eye toward the center of the ceiling and illusionistically upward, into the twilit, cloud-dappled heavens that dominate the fresco. While the two boldly stylized, empty-eyed masks appear to hover in the sky's middle distance and look downward in this gathering of mortals, the main celestial players are the Muses themselves-voluptuously beautiful, perennially youthful women who cavort among the clouds with their various signature instruments and attributes, in some cases gazing down on the scene below as if directing their inspirational powers toward particular individuals in the terrestrial crowd.