A few steps from the near-constant roar of traffic along Rockville Pike, tucked between an LA Fitness and an Arhaus furniture store, a mysterious bronze cylinder, covered top to bottom in inscribed letters, stands vigil next to a width of moving water, bubbling and racing along a snaking wall of white granite. At dusk the metal tube, lighted from within, casts a clamor of words onto the darkening pavement, calling out to passersby to turn and look and read. Seemingly oblivious, a man wearing shorts, his back to the scene, photographs a quartet of smiling diners posing at a car parked near a valet sign. He’s facing the wrong way. Behind him, just over his shoulder, is “Alluvium.”
Sculptor Jim Sanborn, 65, has done only two projects he would describe as commercial. “Alluvium,” the new outdoor installation unveiled in May at North Bethesda Market, is one. The real estate development group JBG Companies commissioned the artwork for the outdoor shopping plaza at 11333 Woodglen Dr., just south of the White Flint Metro station.
Sprawling more than 300 feet, “Alluvium” is a homage to the White Flint area — so named for the white quartz (not white flint) found throughout Montgomery County. The sculpture took six years, and during that time, according to the artist, the site, which initially had more of a residential feel, evolved to become the commercial center it is today.
Sanborn and the original landscape architect for the project, Kennon Williams, conceived of “Alluvium” as a reflection of the flow of the Potomac from the Shenandoah Mountains, across the Shenandoah Valley and into the Chesapeake Bay. It is a stylized diorama of granite, flowing water and Sanborn’s signature metalwork and with historical quotations from Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson and naturalist John Muir, and texts in various languages.
Sanborn — widely known for his 1990 sculpture “Kryptos,” which bears an encrypted message and is located at CIA headquarters — says he is more comfortable in a natural environment than in an urban one. He resides just outside of Piney Point and has spent years hiking in Glen Echo and along the Potomac.
The artist talked about his latest foray into public art while he was in Wyoming on a weeks-long excursion:
“In my public work I’ve decided to use international language text on the one hand for their inherent beauty and on the other hand because they are unfamiliar, and for many people they are code. I mean, you have to decipher international text. If you don’t understand that language, you have to find a friend or collaborate with a friend to figure out what the word says, so it basically enables a sort of a multicultural discussion.
“I thought that that was important because the Washington region and many regions around the United States where I work have become far, far more diverse culturally. And so I made an attempt to be as inclusive as I can be and also chose texts which have an inherent beauty — in Chinese and Arabic and Russian and Ethiopian. All have very distinctive typefaces and fonts but are very beautiful, I believe, to look at. And so I’m hoping that the work sort of retains a mystery the way a code does because of the multiple languages that I use.
“I regard myself not certainly as a naturalist but as somebody who is very interested in the natural environment. I’m sitting now in my favorite place on Earth, which is in a huge, massive field, surrounded by elk, looking at the Grand Teton Mountains, and there are no other people around. For me that’s the ideal environment and so I share thinking that way, certainly not at the level of John Muir, but I really appreciate his and [naturalist] Aldo Leopold’s view of nature and so it creeps into my work in a variety of ways.
“And I suppose in this piece it’s more a part of the work than it has been in the past. . . . [“Alluvium”] has a lot to do with the discovery of the natural world and with an appreciation for the natural world, which I have tremendous reverence for.”
“[Public art] is a very difficult thing to balance and it’s a very difficult thing to do because public art is more or less about compromise. And in some ways it’s almost closer to architecture than it is art because of the level of compromise that one makes. So rather than, say, storming off a site and playing prima donna because the site changed and the nature of the project changed, you have to be willing to be malleable enough to deal with that. It’s what public art is about.”
Leiby is a freelance writer.