Farmer in the shell harvests university's origins, in plaster

Object Lesson


Dressed in rustic overalls and a red baseball hat, a terrapin stands in a field of vibrant sunflowers. Soon the plaster statue will be on display outside Symons Hall, home to classrooms in which University of Maryland, College Park students learn about the latest farming technologies. Though an academic setting may seem an unlikely one for a reptile, the sculpture's creator drew inspiration from the university's own history.

"Maryland started out as an agriculture college," said John Nickerson, a 1985 university graduate and the terrapin's creator. "Making him look like a farmer was the natural way to go."

Since 1932, the Diamondback terrapin, a species indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay, has been the university's mascot. Beginning this Saturday, the sculpture will be one of 50 installed throughout the campus, as well as Baltimore, Silver Spring and Annapolis. Like the crabs that last summer dotted Baltimore - or the cows of Chicago that in 1999 triggered a national craze for plaster animals - the terrapins are meant to add a little art and fun to their surroundings.

Their installation also is part of the university's 8th Annual Maryland Day, a campus-wide event that this year marks the university's 150th anniversary. The 4 1/2 -foot reptiles will remain in place until Oct. 19, when they'll be auctioned to raise money for scholarships.

Designed by artists ranging from professionals like Nickerson to Germantown Elementary School students, the terrapin creations recall the past, riff on Maryland culture and allude to the university's future. Soon any who stroll through College Park will find a terrapin playing lacrosse, another dressed in a box of Old Bay seasoning and still another dedicated to basketball legends. (Alas, so far, there's no female basketball-playing terrapin.)

Nickerson chose to adorn his terrapin, which he calls, Out Standing In His Field, in a farmer's garb. After all, the institution was founded in 1856 as the Maryland Agricultural College. "I was always aware of the history," he said. "And I wanted to remind people."

Though Nickerson earned his degree in agricultural engineering, he chose art as his profession. He also has designed a Washington, D.C., panda statue, a New York City apple and a Wilmington, Del., Snowman.

His latest creation was inspired by his memories of college life. "It was my first idea, usually I sit down with a sketchbook, but this time it struck me," he said.

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