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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Magical Fountain Inside ODU's Barry Art Museum Uses Water and Words to Inspire

By Teresa Annas

Inside the new Barry Art Museum, which opens Nov. 14 at Old Dominion University, a massive fountain spurts virtual letters that swirl on its surface and become words that turn into phrases.

The text then appears to slip over the edge of the fountain onto the terrazzo floor, where entire sentences swim toward a wall. Then phrases fly up the wall and jell as a quote.

The inspiring thought stays in place just long enough to be read and pondered before being replaced by the next quote-in-process.

This magical, literary fountain is composed of two creations — a glass-and-bronze near-hemisphere by renowned sculptor Howard Ben Tré, and the digital "dynamic typography in a three-dimensional landscape" designed by David Small.

Ben Tré's part, titled "Fountain of Inspiration," is fabricated from silicon bronze with cast glass panel inserts.

Small's contribution, called "Hall of Ideas," originates from five precisely aligned video projectors installed overhead and a dedicated computer hidden from sight.

These artistic contributions are a marriage of physical opposites.

Ben Tré's work often is based on archetypal forms that speak to universal experiences, from fertility to spirituality. Starting in the 1970s, he pioneered large-scale cast glass sculpture and has exhibited worldwide.

Small's contribution is very 21st century, though he started learning about dynamic typography while earning advanced degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s. His forward-looking doctoral work with text that moves in surprising ways was shown in 2000 at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in Manhattan, where a New York Times reviewer dubbed it a "work of genius."

This double-titled co-creation is permanently installed at the Barry museum. It's in a spacious sculpture court just past the architecturally impressive main entrance, with its serpentine glass wall and elegant curved stairway.

The fountain was originally commissioned for a library in Boston housing the archives of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science religion. In keeping with her passion for thinkers, the project's goal was to "celebrate the power of ideas," said Small, who designed the technology to make the letters rise, merge, travel and become quotes.

Conceptualizing the piece was a team affair, which included an exhibition design firm hired by the library. The group settled on the notion of a fountain of ideas, which entailed having an actual fountain, Small recounted.

Ben Tré was brought in to realize this idea.

Neither Small nor Ben Tré was involved in selecting the quotes, which were intended to inspire visitors. The 621 quotations represent notable men and women from different cultures and time periods. They cover a broad range of subjects, including an array of religions, Small said. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, ancient Greek philosopher Plato and visionary American designer Buckminster Fuller are among those quoted. Also featured are a cluster of feminists, including artist Judy Chicago and actress Marlo Thomas.

The sculpture dominated a hall in the Boston library from 2002 until 2016, when library leaders sought a change and the Barrys purchased it with the new museum in mind.

The Barrys are fond of Ben Tré work and have several other pieces by him. Why did they acquire the fountain?

"We liked the fact that it involved technology," Richard Barry said. "We liked the fact that it was a Ben Tré. He is famous for his big installation pieces all around the world. We thought it was a handsome piece."

As for the animated text, he said, "you've got to go over there and sit down, take some time and absorb the messages. It's very stimulating."

Ben Tré studied metal foundry work throughout high school at a Brooklyn (N.Y.) industrial arts school. He learned how to sand-cast, a process he later adapted for glass once he saw molten glass in a furnace at Oregon's Portland State University, the artist said.

It struck him that he could pour hot glass into a mold largely composed of sand, much as he had done with molten metal. The sand gave the glass a rough texture that suited his goal of making serious sculpture.

"Fountain of Inspiration," which is 28 inches tall and 11 feet in diameter, is shaped like a low hemispherical bowl with a base ring and is essentially flat across the top. At the center is a shallow, pierced-metal font where water bubbles onto the surface. Surrounding that bowl are two concentric circles, one consisting of Ben Tré's signature green glass in laminated layers, and an outer circle with alternating sections of bronze and solid glass.

Since the bronze is hard-edged along the rim, he indented the glass sections at the edge so visitors could comfortably lean into the piece.

He likes to see people immersed in his work, and with each other. "It's about community," the sculptor said. "It's about having people come to the work and be moved by it."

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