Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Why a Fountain Graces the Talbot County Free Library
Once, years ago, while hiking up in Virginia's Jefferson National Forest, I happened upon an abandoned nineteenth century iron furnace. Built from massive blocks of native stone, the thing stood a good three stories tall, a truncated pyramidal shape slowly cloaking itself in tree roots and vines like some ancient Mayan ruin.
Perhaps it was this discovery—on that particular day mine alone—that left me so fascinated with the idea of a furnace: the elemental conversion of stone to metal, the reduction of hematite (Fe2O3) to pure iron (Fe). It became a sort of obsession with me. I sought out other examples of early nineteenth century furnaces, read old texts on the iron-making craft, and even went so far as to build a scale-model furnace in our backyard, using Kingsford briquettes as fuel. It was probably inevitable that a furnace would serve as a fulcrum for the story I told thirty years later in The Oblate's Confession.
Early in her life, while trying to learn to cook from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the artist Jan Kirsh developed a similar obsession with the forms taken by fruits and vegetables. Over coffee the other day at the Piazza, she told me avocados in particular appealed to her. After scraping out their creamy green flesh, she would save the skins, dry them till they hardened into strange, coracle-like shells, and then display them on her windowsill. Trained as a sculptor, it wasn't long before these forms began to appear in her work.One of the first of these was an ear of corn she modeled in clay while studying as a young woman at Washington's illustrious Corcoran School of Art. Kirsh made the cob itself first, and then, laboriously, fashioned and attached to its face hundreds of perfect little clay kernels. When the time came to share her creation with her class, she boarded one of the city's big Metro buses and, cradling the delicate, as yet unfired, piece in her arms, rode with it down to the ellipse, all the while trying to ignore the curious stares of her fellow passengers.
At the Corcoran, the ear of corn was placed on its end on a tall worktable so students could gather round and admire its intricate detail. The artist herself was basking in their praise when, to her horror, the sculpture suddenly slumped to one side, hesitated for a moment, and then fell over—all her meticulously-crafted kernels flattened like peas against the table's surface.
“Good God,” I asked, sitting there in the Piazza, “what did you do?”
Black eyes sparkling, Kirsh smiled and said, “You know I always tell students that story, because we all have failures like that. Something always falls over and undoes all the work we've done. But you can remake it, and often, the second time around, the result is even better than the first.”
Kirsh, who now lives and works in Bozman, has made, and sometimes remade, scores of fruit and vegetable sculptures since those early days in Washington. I would encourage you to visit her website at jankirshstudio.com, as I'm sure you'll get a kick out of all the adamantine artichokes, cephalopod leeks, labyrinthine figs, inquisitive asparaguses, and petulant chiles that inhabit her portfolio.
And now Terry Britt has generously donated a Jan Kirsh fountain to the library. Haven't you always loved the perfect ball-shaped hollow left in an avocado's meat when you remove the pit? I certainly have, and it is this lovely half-globe concavity that serves as the basin for the avocado fountain that now graces the entrance to the Talbot County Free Library.
Traditional histories of Western Civilization usually begin with the invention of writing, circa 3500 B.C., by the Sumerian culture. The Kingdom of Sumer was located in Mesopotamia, in a stretch of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known today as the Fertile Crescent. Fertile it may once have been but, even in the Bronze Age, it was a relatively arid environment that depended upon irrigation for the agriculture that nourished its culture. So it is no exaggeration to say that the manipulation of water by humans—in the form of irrigation canals, aqueducts, and fountains—gave birth to Western Civilization. How fitting then that Terry Britt has given a fountain to the library—for a library is, of course, both source and symbol of that selfsame civilization.
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