Carroll Creek sculpture of Frederick-born chess master earns national recognition

Oct. 27—A Denver-based nonprofit recently put Frederick on the national map for its public art scene — literally.

"An Elusive Kinetic Portrait," a creation of husband-and-wife team Tsvetomir Naydenov and Marguerite de Messières that's been displayed in Carroll Creek since 2020, is featured in the Western State Arts Federation's interactive illustrated map of public art projects across the U.S.

The sculpture is part of the Carroll Creek Kinetic Art Promenade, a series of sculptures in the waterway that move in the wind. Bernard Gouin, chairman of the project, called its inclusion on WESTAF's map "a great honor."

Messières and Naydenov's piece depicts Theophilus Thompson, a 19th-century Frederick native who is considered the earliest documented African American chess expert.

Thompson was born into slavery in 1855, and historians don't think he had any formal education. He first witnessed a game of chess while he was working as a house servant in Carroll County, and he figured out how the pieces moved through careful, deferential observation of the white players.

Within a year, he was a master.

The finer details of Thompson's life evade historians. We know who lent him his first chess board, and we know that he published a book of chess problems when he was just 18 years old. And thanks to recent research by volunteer historians at the African American Resources Cultural Heritage Society of Frederick County, we know Thompson died of tuberculosis at the age of 25.

Messières and Naydenov tried to capture the elusive element to Thompson's story in their kinetic sculpture, which is based on the only known photograph of him. Messières, a painter by trade, pixelated the image, then recreated it with more than 1,000 hand-formed aluminum tiles.

Naydenov sculpted the metal frame, which spins in the breeze. The tiles move, too, meaning Thompson's face is elusive; it's only clearly visible when the angle and the wind are both just right.

"I painted both sides of the tiles the same color, so that when it would spin in the wind, his face would kind of come and go. At the time when we were planning the piece, so little was known about him," Messières said. "You knew he was there, but you couldn't see him clearly. It was almost like he had a story, but it wasn't even ours to tell."

Messières submitted the piece, which was funded by the Ausherman Family Foundation, to WESTAF's Public Art Archive, a free, searchable database of thousands of public artworks across the U.S. and the world.

Any artist or organization can submit their work to the archive. It was launched in 2010, said manager Lori Goldstein, when WESTAF realized that there was no centralized system for keeping track of public art.

"To find public art, whether you were looking on the computer or whether you were on foot exploring, you were having to navigate to all different sites," Goldstein recalled.

Incorporating art into public spaces serves a unique purpose, Goldstein said. The archive's website states that its goal is to make "public art more public."

"While I do love the world of museums and galleries, this idea of being able to experience public art in any community, whether you're a resident or visitor, is very compelling to me," Goldstein said. "There's an equitable nature to public art, where there's no fee to experience it."

Today, more than 19,000 pieces are chronicled in the archive, Goldstein said. But a tiny fraction of those are represented in the group's recent interactive map, published last month. Messières and Naydenov's piece was chosen from more than 500 submissions by a jury of 12 WESTAF employees.

Goldstein said she was compelled by the Frederick sculpture not just because of its beauty but because of what it gives to its viewers. Frederick locals who haven't heard of Thompson might be compelled to research his story after seeing "An Elusive Kinetic Portrait," Goldstein added.

The sculpture will be on display until April 2023.

"Coming across this in person may be a way for even the local community to learn more about their own history," Goldstein said.

"In the news cycle a lot is this question about monuments and who should be remembered," she added. "This kind of project takes a very unique approach to looking deeper into history. Not everything has to be permanent, right? This is a way to experiment with more ephemeral forms of public art."