Sculptor Jim Sanborn gets wealth of ideas from the likes of 'Wealth of Nations'

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Jim Sanborn


Jim Sanborn's father was the head of exhibitions at the Library of Congress, and Sanborn, one of the region's preeminent sculptors, says he just about grew up in that institution.

"All my high school papers were written in the rare book room," he says. There, Sanborn thumbed through Adam Smith's original "Wealth of Nations" (wearing white gloves, of course), as well as some of Galileo's manuscripts. He has held a Dead Sea Scroll in his hands. Literature, Sanborn says, "is extremely close to me."

So it's no surprise that his metal and stone creations often include written words, albeit encrypted -- as in the encoded text that perforates the graceful copper panels of "Antipodes," outside the Hirshhorn Museum, as well as "Kryptos," at the CIA headquarters in Langley.

Lately, Sanborn has been making works that tell the story of the atomic bomb, and in the process has been pushing at the boundaries of art. A recent example is "Terrestrial Physics," at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art: Using old scientific texts, Sanborn reconstructed the first big machine to create nuclear fission.

His fascination with physics stems from Richard Rhodes's 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning history, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." Sanborn was so impressed with the book that he got in touch with Rhodes; the two struck up a friendship and the author helped the artist track down original source material. In fact, Sanborn got his hands on actual bomb parts from the Manhattan Project lab at Los Alamos in the 1940s. One of the resulting artworks, "Critical Assembly," was a re-creation of the lab, using the artifacts and Rhodes's photos and descriptions.

With it, the sculptor brought the literature he loved to life -- a creative act that lifted history off the page. "Going from the written, flat word to the three-dimensional object," Sanborn says, "that was one of the more enriching things that I've done."

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