The Story Behind Jim Sanborn's Latest Artwork, 'Terrestrial Physics'

Artist Jim Sanborn outside his studio in Piney, Point, Md., with a part of his installation
Artist Jim Sanborn outside his studio in Piney, Point, Md., with a part of his installation "Terrestrial Physics," which produced nuclear fission. (By Marcus Yam -- The Washington Post)
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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When Jim Sanborn shows you his latest art, the jaw drops and elegant words fail.

Dr. Frankenstein's lab has nothing on Sanborn's studio in Maryland.

A polished aluminum sphere perches by the ceiling, coupled to a cylinder that could be a meat smoker from Mars. A glass tube the size of your thigh runs down almost to the floor, ringed with gleaming copper halos like a Buck Rogers ray gun. It's all totally Ed Wood -- except that Sanborn's scientific madness works.

What we have here is a real, honest-to-God, no-holds-barred, fully operational electrostatic particle accelerator.

Throw the switch and 1 million volts of juice start flying down the tube. X-rays zip off in every direction. Deafening zaps fill the air, and bolts of lightning spark around the metal sphere. Hunkered down in his lead-lined control booth, Sanborn can turn on his Geiger counters, turn up the power -- and split the atom.

More impressive yet: "Terrestrial Physics," as the new installation is called, is possibly the most substantial work of art to come out of Washington since the 1950s, when Morris Louis stained his first canvases. Except Louis's fans had seen big, colorful abstractions before. No one has come across a thing quite like the new art Sanborn has made, working almost alone in his studio over the past three years.

At 63, Sanborn has been one of Washington's most important artists for decades. With "Terrestrial Physics," made public for the first time here, he has a shot at mattering worldwide.

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Sanborn's studio is almost two hours south of the District, on a 15-acre island beyond Piney Point, Md., at the mouth of the Potomac River.

"I needed 15 acres, minimum, to insulate myself," Sanborn says -- from the nosy, the government, anyone who might want to pry into his latest project. "I have video cameras, threatening signs, whatever it takes."

Sanborn is an imposing man, 6-foot-8 with a sea captain's beard. He has an intensity that is almost alarming.

He can even come off as a tiny touch paranoid. "I couldn't do what I'm doing now anywhere but here. . . . There's not much better protection than a moat," he says, referring to the thread of water that separates his home from the mainland. But then you think: Some people really do have reason to look over their shoulders. People who build homemade particle accelerators, for instance.

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