Scots-Irish settler William Sproul arrived in the Shenandoah Valley in the mid-1700s, one example of a mass migration to the U.S. that would number 400,000 of Irish birth or ancestry by the end of that century. Sproul would establish his “Locust Grove” homestead near the rural Middlebrook, Va., with its series of cascading hills and ripe pastures. His bloodline would produce farmers, business leaders, soldiers whose lives would scatter them across the country, yet still retaining hundreds of descendants in the region.
One in particular, painter Elizabeth Sproul Ross, has long traversed both city life and the lush, rural Middlebrook.
In 1968, a then new career in arts education took her nearly 267 miles south of where the Sprouls first settled, in the burgeoning urban landscape of Charlotte, N.C. Elizabeth had joined the faculty of the recently established Central Piedmont Community College. Then a single-campus institution, the school’s identity was still being forged. Five years after opening its doors, the school’s visual arts program had found one of its pillars Elizabeth. An unlikely connection that began after an educator’s arrival would continue for more than four decades.
Airy Knoll is a small piece of a bigger whole, hundreds of acres divided among the modern Sprouls with disparate, yet vital purposes. One piece, owned by one of Elizabeth’s siblings, is rented to the lauded sustainable practice of Polyface Farms, featured in the documentary Food, Inc. Another is the year-round domestic dwelling constantly breathing new life into William Sproul’s ancestry. And the few acres of Airy Knoll garner new life with every class that visits its 113 year old farmhouse abuzz with creation each summer. Likewise, each group of students and teachers who have attended an Airy Knoll Farm Class are members of something much bigger: a class of hundreds of students who have learned arts, life skills, and community.
Be began this introduction with William Sproul because a sense of history is vital. Whether in a class room or pasture, the history and narrative of a place is part of its character. We see this in how names endure. Today, a few miles down the road stands Airy Knoll Cemetery. Though now ruinous, it bears the stones and the enduring inspiration of the first Sprouls. While the cemetery is not where Airy Knoll got its name, it is a place that is a part of Airy Knoll, along with the plants, animals, climate, living residents, storied history and more. From a starting point on a small farm in Middlebrook, Airy Knoll has became a place of learning and community for hundreds of students.
It was 1972 when Elizabeth Sproul Ross had an idea for how to use a small piece of land gifted to her from her family. She asked a handful of students in her art appreciation course in Charlotte to follower her to the mountains of Virginia. She named this place Airy Knoll after the one-room schoolhouse just over the hill. It was the school attended by Elizabeth and her siblings. Elizabeth’s career can be traced though a series of schools: that one-room building over the hill back home, Queens College in Charlotte, a short stint in Winston Salem, an MFA earned at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a tenure at Central Piedmont Community College that brought her full circle back to her home country.
After the first session in 1975, Elizabeth began to invite artists and writers to serve as teachers during the weeks on the farm. Themes would be chosen, serving as a broad source of inspiration for both the materials and work. Finally, the inclusion of scientific lessons and discussion would integrate the natural elements of the farm, creating a bond between the physical and metaphysical that endures today.
“The three purposes for all of this were: One, to discover what abilities and interests you have. What is going to b a long-term career goal for yourself? Another is to develop a portfolio that helps you take the next step,for you to apply for another year of school or graduate school. A few years ago, it was determined that 12 CPCC student artists had gone to graduate school, and all but one had been through the farm class. I think that kind of tells you something.
And there is a third reason. One of our students, a designer, says, ‘I have to have this. For me to keep that energy, that enthusiasm, that dedication to the arts. I must come here. I have to recharge'” – Elizabeth