South County Library Welcomes Public Art Piece

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John Nettles, Betty Branch and G. Lindsay Hickam with “A Friend for Life.”
John Nettles, Betty Branch and G. Lindsay Hickam with “A Friend for Life.”

by Gene Marrano

Diana Rosapepe, director for Roanoke County’s library system, had these words of assurance at the unveiling ceremony last week for a new work by sculptor Betty Branch: “I think you will be impressed. It’s quite impressive.” Rosapepe was referring to Branch’s work “A Friend for Life,” which now sits outside the new South County Library on Merriman Road. It’s cast in bronze and features an 8-year-old boy in a sitting pose, reading. As with many 8-year-old boys one of his shoes is untied. The sculpture is encircled in a steel ring; something Branch said draws attention and focuses the eye.

Branch, a southwest Roanoke County resident who works out of a studio in downtown Roanoke, was approached by the Friends of the Library group about coming up with a piece to be displayed at the library.  Retired pediatrician G. Lindsay Hickam – Poppy Hickam as they call him at Penn Forest Elementary across the street, where he often reads to youngsters – offered a $10,000 matching grant towards the purchase price. This is no small work of art: the base alone weighs 3000 lbs.

The Friends group raised the rest and commissioned Branch, whose works have been widely exhibited nationally and internationally. “The statue is for you all,” said Hickam in brief remarks during a ceremony held inside the new library’s auditorium. He liked its depiction of a boy with book in hand: “reading is the foundation of education,” said Hickam, who retired early because of a stroke and found solace in reading as he recovered.

At Penn Forest, “Poppy Hickam … is making the difference with one child at a time [by reading to them],” said Dr. Linda Wright, the school’s principal. Hickam is also “our most faithful volunteer,” added Wright, “Poppy is always there.”

Hickam had first proposed to donate money for an outdoor reading garden, which couldn’t be done because of logistical reasons. The conversation eventually came around to the idea of a sculpture that had to do with reading. “They just latched on to this particular design right away,” said Rosapepe, who hopes it will inspire youngsters: “there is nothing that they will find more valuable than reading. If you can read, you can do almost anything.”

A Friend for Life “brings back these memories for me,” said Cave Spring supervisor Charlotte Moore, talking about early childhood trips to the local library – which no doubt looked nothing like the new, ultra-modern $15 million South County facility that opened earlier this year.

Branch was introduced by Debra Landgraf, a member of the Friends of the Library board of directors and the owner of a Branch piece herself. “She understood [the need] to create a work that represents the passion of reading,” said Langraf, who retired from the Family Services agency in Roanoke.

The sculptor, who had created pieces for other libraries before, met with the Friends board president John Nettles and others about a possible subject, which took about a year from planning to completion. “Very quickly an image came to me,” said Branch, who lauded the “remarkable setting,” of the South County library as a good home for her work. She produced one sketch and sold that to the Friends group.

“This was just a beautiful commission and a beautiful idea, it went very smoothly,” said Branch, who would like to see public art at other libraries in the county. She views her piece as “a welcoming figure,” to those that approach the library.

Branch used a model while working on the sculpture, joking that it was “often the [hardest] part of all.”  She called A Friend for Life “an image to capture the fascination of reading.”  Rosapepe said reaction to A Friend for Life has been positive so far: “it brings a dimension to the outside of the building – kind of humanizes it.”