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Cabell's new ‘Fall Line’ evokes Richmond’s James River

March 19, 2018
A portrait of the wood artist who created, designed and built the Fall Line bench for the library lobby. He is standing on the second floor that overlooks the lobby and the bench on the day it was assembled, March 3, 2018. Jay Paul photo.
Jay Paul photo

The sculpture, titled “Fall Line,” was created by Heath Matysek-Snyder, an assistant professor in the Department of Craft/Material Studies and lead professor of the wood area in the School of the Arts, who has been working on the piece in his Scott’s Addition studio for more than two years.

“My hope is that when people walk into Cabell Library, they’ll recognize it as the James River, which I find to be an amazing element of Richmond, a really amazing feature of the city,” Matysek-Snyder said. “This will be an object that greets you. It will be a place to meet. And it will be a feature that says goodbye as you walk back out.”

The 27-foot-long white oak bench mimics the contours of the James River from Pony Pasture to the 14th Street Bridge, with aluminum on top of the bench representing the outline of the river, including Belle Isle. The bench is broken into four sections, with each of the three negative spaces representing a different iconic Richmond bridge, also rendered in aluminum, and allowing pedestrians to walk through.

“The pass-throughs serve a couple functions — one, it allows the bench to be broken into four sections so it’s not one continuous 27-foot-long wall, essentially,” said Matysek-Snyder, who is also a VCU alumnus. “And each of the pass-throughs, that negative space, corresponds with a bridge that spans the James. We’ve got the CSX railroad bridge, the Nickel Bridge — and then the Lee Bridge, and in particular, the suspension pedestrian bridge going over to Belle Isle.”

At each break in the bench is a representation of each particular bridge – one for trains, one for automobiles and one for people -- as well as specific building materials that are distinctly Richmond and evoke the city’s history.

“Where those bridges go across, they also expose a cross-section of the building materials which are synonymous with Richmond,” Matysek-Snyder said. “So, we’ve got bricks — historic sandstone bricks — from Richmond that have been salvaged from the Fan, and those are at the bridge section where the CSX bridge crosses. There are historic Richmond cobblestones, which will be behind the Nickel Bridge. And there’s a patchwork of patinated steel, from old knock-down, steel, concrete forms used to create sidewalks and curbs in Richmond, that touches on Tredegar Iron Works, the steel and wire factory that used to be on Belle Isle, and all of the other rusty bits all over Richmond.”

Paul’s Place, a local architectural salvage business founded by VCU alumnus Paul Ferramosca, provided the materials.

“Fall Line” is so named because it illustrates Richmond’s stretch of the James River that includes the zone of falls and rapids brought about by the final major drop in elevation from the Piedmont before the coastal plain, which sees a much more gradual elevation drop before arriving at the Atlantic Ocean.

“The James River is a really dynamic feature of the city. Utilized by an entire cross-section of the population of Richmond, the James sees no class distinction, no race distinction, no ethnic distinction, no gender distinction, no religious distinction. It really is an inclusive and unbiased feature of Richmond. And is heavily utilized by the students,” Matysek-Snyder said.

“The form of the bench became generated by the James River itself as it flows down through the city limits of Richmond and that section — it’s a seven-mile section — is the fall line.”

VCU Libraries commissioned the sculpture, wanting a piece in the new library’s entranceway that brings people together in a way that is unique to Richmond and VCU, said University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider.

“The James River has been woven into the fabric of Richmond’s identity since its beginning, and it is a vibrant presence in the cultural life and academic work of Virginia Commonwealth University,” he said. “We wanted to bring that core element of Richmond and VCU into the new library with a signature piece of art that captures and expresses our connection to the urban environment of Richmond and its importance to VCU.”

Capital funds earmarked for the construction and furnishing of the recently expanded Cabell Library covered the costs for “Fall Line.” No tuition or student fee moneys were used.

Caren Girard, manager of interior design with VCU’s Facilities Management Division, said she is excited to see “Fall Line” come to fruition.

"I appreciate the library's willingness to work with a School of the Arts faculty member on this important piece,” she said. “This commission is a first for me and it's been fun and engaging to work with the planning team.”

Matysek-Snyder said he hopes “Fall Line” will convey — particularly to students — how the James River, Richmond and VCU are interconnected.

“Many, many students have gone to Belle Isle and rock hopped or jumped in the water or have kayaked in the river or gone whitewater rafting — all the recreational opportunities that the James River affords,” he said. “So I’m hoping that people will [make] that connection with the James.”

He added that he hopes visitors will see the ways in which “Fall Line” evokes the parallels between the James River and Cabell Library.

“It becomes a meeting point,” he said. “Anytime people come together, there becomes an information sharing aspect, there becomes storytelling, there becomes research of one type or another. So I think they become quite synonymous — what the river is to the wider Richmond community and what the library is to the VCU community.”

A small team of VCU students from the Craft/Material Studies program helped create “Fall Line.” Pasture to the 14th Street Bridge. 

Jeremy Zietz, a graduate assistant, helped with brainstorming the original design and drew all the three-dimensional renderings. Graduate students Steve Nunes, Hollis McCracken, Will Lenard and Dylan Loftis assisted with the construction of the piece. Equally as instrumental in the construction process were Craft/Material Studies undergraduate majors Taylor Moore, Brittany Marroquin, Reed Caputo, Alex Bannon, Esther Cho, Robbie Maclay and Jason Pascoe.

Matysek-Snyder also thanked his mother, Barbara Matysek, who helped make a few cuts on the band saw, and his father, David A. Snyder, who helped as a studio assistant. He also thanked his wife, Stephanie, who is pregnant with their first child, due in June, for her support, love and understanding over the course of the project.

Each VCU student assistant, Matysek-Snyder said, was invaluable. Without them, he said, the project could not have come to fruition.

“This whole thing has what we call a strong back, which is typically used for a boat,” Moore said during a visit to the studio as the bench was under construction. “When you build a boat, you build the strong back first and it’s the framing for the entire boat, and you put the ribs all the way around. For this bench, it’s kind of a similar setup where the strong back is on the ground and everything is built off of that.”

As the team worked on the bench, Moore added, it was exciting to know that he was helping to create a piece that will be seen by future generations of VCU students.

“At one point, it was [being] laid out in tape [in the library entranceway], and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m actually having a little bit of hand in helping one of my instructors in building what’s going to go there.’”

A version of this article by Brian McNeill was published by University News March 12. 

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