Why a Fountain Graces the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
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
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
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
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.