Sculptor shapes rare Mother's Day present


AS A MOTHER'S Day gift, a sculpture paying tribute to your life's work and bearing the image of your beloved grandchild beats brunch and a bouquet of flowers, hands down.

That's what artist Deborah Banker created for her mother, Judith Banker Barrett, the retired head of Ruxton Country School, and it is hard to know who is luckier: Barrett, who received the most sentimental retirement send-off imaginable, or Banker, whose mother can no longer needle her about finding a real job.

The sculpture will be unveiled at a ceremony on Friday, and it will be placed near the lower school building, which will bear the name of the woman who was head of Ruxton for 22 years.

Barrett oversaw its expansion from a 40-pupil school in a house on Berwick Road to its new Owings Mills campus and an enrollment of over 200. She officially retired last June, but the sculpture gives the school another chance to honor the woman who was probably better known for her sense of fun than for anything else.

"They asked me what I wanted and I said, 'Just don't give me a gold watch,' " said Barrett. "But this took me totally by surprise."

The project was proposed to her daughter by Ruxton parent Betsy Pritchard. Banker was already a familiar face at Ruxton. Two of her children car-pooled with their grandmother to school every day, and she often did art projects with different grades.

"Just a few people knew about it," says Banker. "The whole thing was to be kept a secret from Mom. They were planning other things, too. But this was to be a special gift from the parents."

The sculpture, unofficially called "Book Boy," is a bronze casting of a small child which is cobbled together from everyday objects with symbolic or sentimental meaning.

The boy's torso is made of books: a Merriam-Webster Seven Language Dictionary, an Illustrated World Atlas and "The Odyssey" by Homer, which symbolize the multicultural journey that is education. His hips are constructed of three volumes of an encyclopedia, a relic from the school's earliest days.

The arms and legs are fashioned from small branches from an oak tree, symbol of the school, and the hands and fingers are made from calculators and those big, fat pencils young elementary school children use. The right hand holds an apple for the teacher. A blue bird -- the school's original name was the Blue Bird School -- lights on the boys outstretched hand.

The boy wears a school backpack. The shoes those too-familiar Stride Rite Velcro sneakers, and this pair was actually worn by Banker's three sons. The head is sculpted in the image of Barrett's grandson and Banker's youngest son, Robert, who is 7 years old. (His mother had to pay him $5 to sit still for the project.)

"I am so child-oriented that this makes it such a touching tribute to me," says Barrett. "And the fact that it is Robert's precious face " and her voice is lost in emotion.

That the commission is a natural progression of Banker's style is a bonus for the artist. For several years, she has put "everyday objects together that have no business being together," in her sculptures. She then casts the sculpture in bronze or copper. A recent sculpture, "Love Dog," was formed of hot peppers, cherries and Hershey's kisses.

"I do a lot of commissions, but this is the first time I have been able to fulfill the commission requirements and still do a sculpture in my own style, with my own ideas," said Banker, who lives in Annapolis and teaches sculpture at Anne Arundel Community College and St. John's College. A collection of her pieces will appear through June 24 at Mill River Gallery in Ellicott City.

Banker figures she spent 600 hours working on the sculpture. Six hundred hours of not letting her mother know what she was up to.

"The kids were always picking up the phone and saying, 'Um. She's in the garage, Grandma. You want us to get her?' "

She isn't sure if her children will attend the unveiling. Like most kids, they aren't very impressed with their mother's work and aren't much for formal occasions. But Banker says she thinks there was something else at work, too.

She spent a lot of time away from them working on a gift for her mother. And when all was said and done, it was another little "boy." She thinks they might be jealous.

But if "Book Boy" caused any ripples in Banker's relationship with her boys, it has done great things for the one she has with her mother.

"Finally, I have a sculpture that my mother loves. She's used to saying, 'What are you doing with all those sticks and weirdo chocolate pieces?'

"Now she won't think my whole education has been a waste."

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