Patapsco River Project, 1977
A South Baltimore Gateway for the Baltimore Sculpture Symposium
Artist Jim Sanborn’s first public sculpture, the Patapsco River Project was created as part of the Baltimore Sculpture Symposium sponsored by the city and administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development during the summer of 1977. Four artists were commissioned to each create gateway pieces for the city. The only other surviving gateway piece from the symposium is the Atlantic Blue Roller Column by Dominick Cea on Russell Street.
This early work reveals Sanborn's long-standing interest in Mayan culture, the temples of Guatemala in particular. Abstract and horizontal, the work stands at the far edge of an open field directly fronting the Patapsco River, extending almost 80 feet along the water’s edge. Ten pyramidal shapes are aligned symmetrically, five on either side of an opening that contains a pool and allows a view of the river. In the pool, there is a grate made of aluminum. Light streams through the open space and is reflected on the grate and in the pool. Resting on top of the flattened pyramids made of concrete is one continuous lintel of weathering steel. The lintel carries four more pyramidal shapes, again symmetrically placed, two on each side of the central opening, and again flattened.
The Department of Housing and Community Development assisted the artists at every turn, providing honoraria, materials, equipment, and assistants. For Patapsco River Project, Curtis Steel contributed between 12,000 and 15,000 pounds of Mayari-R steel, the city contributed and poured the concrete, and Edward Renneburg & Sons sheared the steel for free. Sanborn estimates that it might have cost him $100,000 to assemble the piece independently. Since 1977, Sanborn's sculpture has been displayed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His best known commission is an enigmatic cryptographic sculpture, entitled Kryptos, that was unveiled at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia on November 3, 1990.
In 1977, the concrete was bright white, the steel was a beautiful velvety brown, and the grass was green and lush. Unfortunately, very little maintenance has taken place since the work was first installed and few people are aware of the work or Sanborn's national reputation. Despite the neglect, the silhouette of the piece was and still is impressive today.