The JBG Companies (a member of Friends of White Flint) has unveiled the newest piece of public art in Montgomery County: “Alluvium,” a huge and stunning work by reknowned sculptor Jim Sanborn. Alluvium is in the Paseo, the central area of the new North Bethesda Market in White Flint, just across Rockville Pike from White Flint Mall.  Friends of White Flint has always been a strong proponent of public art (along with the late Jean Cryor, a member of the Planning Board), and Alluvium is a remarkable addition to the County’s art treasures.

The opening of "Alluvium" at North Bethesda Market

Here’s the official explanation of the piece:

Renowned artist Jim Sanborn’s latest large-scale art installation, Alluvium, spans more than 300 feet and is designed for public participation in North Bethesda Market’s outdoor plaza. Commissioned by the JBG Companies, Alluvium is a three-part concept representing geological features of Montgomery County and Maryland. Alluvium began with a literal interpretation of the White Flint name, derived from the underground seam of white quartz that transverses much of Montgomery County. A water feature and red granite are also used, representing the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, as well as the Piedmont Region. “Water flows from a basin and cascades over white granite into a shallow pool. A ‘river’ of white granite extends down a curved seat wall toward Rockville Pike, where it spreads out into a representation of an alluvial fan entering the Chesapeake Bay,” as described by Sanborn.

The artist has also incorporated a signature element, a bronze projection cylinder perforated with waterjet-cut text. In daylight, the texts can be read directly from the 4-by-8 foot cylinder or from the surface of the adjacent paving where the sun will project the texts. At night, an interior light will project the texts over a wide area of the paving and architectural surfaces. Viewers will see illumination of historic ecological passages relating to the mountains, the Piedmont, sustainability, and the Chesapeake Bay from the likes of John Muir, George Alsop, and Thomas Jefferson.

Sanborn, who now lives on a private island in the Chesapeake Bay, is best known for his work Kryptos at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. That work was featured in author Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, and the code hidden in it has still, several years after its opening, not been broken. Sanborn said he thought the code would be broken quickly, and he has released several clues, but still “it hangs like an albatross around my neck.”

Jim Sanborn and cylinder at Alluvium

For Alluvium, Sanborn drew on his childhood in the Maryland hills and the Shenandoahs, as well as visions of Great Falls, reflected in the granite waterfalls and the “river” of granite.

Sanborn was careful to note, however, that the Great Falls he used as his inspiration was in Montana, not Maryland. But what was he trying to tell us about Maryland by invoking the grand vistas of the Rockies and the high plains?

And, that perhaps more than most, triggers the mind to wonder. This sculpture, like all art, is meant to evoke emotions and thought, not to be an accurate representation of its subject. So it is with Alluvium.

It is at once incongruous and yet appropriate to have a work intended to represent the sweeping alluvial fan from Maryland’s mountains to its Bay hemmed in by soaring buildings and Rockville Pike. How can a small granite waterfall invoke feelings of height and power when it is only a few feet from the doors of a 300′ tall building, itself appearing to touch the sky in the way the granite spikes do out West?

Waterfall at "Alluvium" in the Paseo at North Bethesda Market

Indeed, almost all visitors first focus on the copper cylinder at the middle of the installation, which rivets the eye by the juxtaposition of its dark, harsh metal and the light shining through the precision-cut letters.

The centerpiece cylinder at "Alluvium" at North Bethesda Market in White Flint

People circle it, brows furrowed, trying to parse the lines, and figure out what in the world Thomas Jefferson is saying in ancient Greek. Watch someone in the plaza, perhaps rushing to a reservation at the nearby restaurant, they glance and see nothing, but then they stop, and peer at the cylinder. If you ask them what Alluvium is about, they will tell you about the words cut in the metal. Only later do they notice something in the granite paving near the cylinder, and their head lifts and swivels, following the odd words cut in the granite. And even later they notice that the rushing noise in the background is not traffic from nearby Rockville Pike, but a waterfall nearby.

This is the opposite reaction of someone to the vast visions of the mountain West, where the horizon is what draws the eye, with the brittle edges of the mountains against the sky, and perhaps the tumbling of a waterfall from high in the Canadian Rockies. Here, in the East, people tend to notice human intervention as much as nature; in the West, the landscape presses down on you.

Zion National Park in Utah

And perhaps that, not the announced intention of the artist, is the real power of Alluvium. It is a dynamic representation of the difference in Eastern and Western landscapes. There is as much visual interest in a Maryland alluvial fan, sweeping down from the narrow crevices of Hagerstown and Frostburg, to the lush estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay, as there is in a reddish Utah canyon scene. The folded, twisted sediments revealed in the great “cuts” along the highways west through the Maryland mountains attest to the local application of the same titanic geologic forces working in the Rockies. And the recent early-morning Gaithersburg earthquake was, literally, a wake-up call of the same.

But Maryland’s vista is subtle, older, eroded, smoother. Sanborn told me last night that he doesn’t consider Alluvium finished because it doesn’t have enough trees: “it’s not green enough yet.” The Maryland landscape can be viewed from above, from Interstate 68, for example, and it spreads quietly before you, where the treasures of Zion National Park in Utah are seen mostly looking up.

In Maryland, in fact, we don’t see the vistas. They are covered with trees. In the West, they are in-your-face clear.  No interpretation required. And those sweeping vistas are often barren; here we have people almost everywhere (except in Green Ridge State Park, where miles of dirt roads wind along mountain passes every bit as interesting as Utah).

Green Ridge State Park in Maryland (picture from AwayMedia.com)

Sanborn often focuses on a theme of “making the invisible visible.” But here Sanborn is playing a trick on his viewers and doing the opposite. He draws them in with his razor-sharp letters, with tricky word-play that raise more questions than answers. But he has a purpose — revealed as you step back and contemplate the entire installation. But only in part. Even the obvious scope of the installation hides some of what Sanborn had in mind.

To understand what was at work in the artist’s mind you have to listen carefully: he says he was showing you the huge alluvial fan from mountains to sea. But he also says he was really highlighting the vast seams of white quartz underlying much of Montgomery County, and White Flint in particular. That’s where White Flint gets its name, he points out, from some early explorers who mistakenly thought the translucent rock was flint.

A piece of White "Flint" (actually quartz) pokes through the dirt in Montgomery County's Little Bennett Regional Park

Flint and quartz, he says, are much the same material, but one sparks and the other does not. He brings out both in his sculpture, but unless you’re looking for it, you won’t see that.

Sanborn is showing us that Montgomery County and White Flint in particular have many structural elements, many of them hidden or subtle. We build on, and out of, these materials in what we do locally. And never think of them as we rush from place to place.

So there is a final puzzle piece to add: the name of the area in which Sanborn placed his sculpture. JBG calls it a “paseo.” A paseo is a place for an evening stroll, a leisurely saunter as the soft air carries hints of olives and simmering tomatoes, named for the stately procession of Spanish bullfighters and their assistants into the ring. What the eye and ear notice at first is not the whole, but a mere foretaste. This is a place for thoughts, some romantic, others deeper. Not everything is revealed all at once. Some things are sharp and hard, others hidden but telling. What you see first may not be the most important.

And so it is with Alluvium.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


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