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What are the three moody figures on Eisenhower Avenue trying to say?

A view of "Angels of the Americas" sculptural installation consisting of three marble statues, outside an office building on Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria, by artist Be Gardiner. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

At the intersection of Eisenhower Avenue and Cameron Parke Place in Alexandria, there is an office building. In front of it are three vaguely religious sculptures of . . . what? Monks? Dead people? Spirits? It is actually quite an interesting piece. It is unlabeled and uncredited. Can you get its story?

— Lily Engle, Alexandria

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Yes, Answer Man can. And it’s quite enlightening, in several senses of that word. First, though, let’s contemplate why there is artwork outside the building at 3601 Eisenhower Ave. in the first place.

“We always thought it was an important ingredient to set our buildings apart,” said Bob Buchanan of Buchanan Partners, the development company that built the office building.

The public-art movement gained steam in the 1970s as more and more jurisdictions started mandating that some small percentage of the funds spent on projects be earmarked for art.

For Bob, one benefit is that artwork makes a space more inviting. He has a favorite anecdote:

“We developed a building in Ballston that had this very gracious and landscaped turnaround and drop-off feature in the front,” he said. “We noticed that no one would go out at lunchtime and sit and enjoy the outside. Nothing drew them to it. We put a nice piece of sculpture in the middle of it. We found that after that, the place was always packed. People could go out and comment on the art. They didn’t have to sit in silence looking at each other.”

The Eisenhower Avenue location posed a special challenge, said Bob’s wife, Sharon, who works as an arts consultant. It sits across from the depression that is Cameron Run, with the roar of the Beltway beyond that. It needed something vertical to keep the building’s occupants from feeling that they were entering a well.

That’s where Be Gardiner came in. When the North Carolina sculptor was approached by the Buchanans, he remembered a large piece of pink marble he had seen in an abandoned Tennessee quarry (the same marble that clads the exterior of the National Gallery of Art buildings, by the way). That became the tallest of the three pieces. Each shows a draped figure set with a face sculpted from white Carrara marble.

The title of the 1991 piece is “Angels of the Americas.” So, are the figures angels? Angels do figure in Gardiner’s work, examples of which can be found in collections throughout the South. And yet you wouldn’t be wrong to call them monks.

“You can tell her that the person who made those went on to become a Zen monk,” the artist told me. He now goes by the name Teitaku Isaac Gardiner (“Be” was a childhood nickname) and was calling from the North Carolina Zen Center in Pittsboro, which he was visiting from his home on Puget Sound. He told Answer Man that he has not picked up a chisel in 18 years.

“It was such a surprise to so many people,” Isaac, 62, said of his decision to leave sculpture. “I really loved it. I was as surprised as the rest. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience where you just know, ‘I can’t do this. I’ve got to go do something else.’ Even if it’s not clear what the something else is, then you still have to go look for it.”

He said what interested him about the Eisenhower Avenue sculpture is the way it combines different styles. “When you drive in the driveway, you see the abstraction,” he said: flat expanses of stone with rough drapery. “When you see that it’s clear these are faces, it’s a figurative thing.”

Answer Man wondered whether Isaac’s new spiritual interests inevitably meant there was no room for creating art. No, he said.

“One of the central things about practicing Zen Buddhism is that the very life that you are living is what you’re looking for, that there’s no special place or other place,” he said.

He could have continued as a stonecarver but instead decided to devote his life to the study of Zen.

But that doesn’t mean the life of an artist — this artist, at least — is so different from the life of a robed Buddhist monk.

“I think it’s safe to say that the desire to somehow get the transcendent was as operative then as now,” Isaac said. “It was just a different way of looking for that same thing.”

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