by Tracey F. Johns, reprinted with permission from Tidewater Times, December 2023
The sun-dappled roads continued to narrow and become canopied with old-forest trees as I traveled to one of the farthest reaches of Bozman, Maryland. Glimmers of Grace Creek and Leadenham Creek hugged my horizons on either side, while the trees carried songbirds and a chilly autumn breeze.
I arrived early for a Saturday afternoon garden party and fundraiser for the St. Michaels Community Center’s capital campaign, hosted by landscape designer and sculptor Jan Kirsh at her gardens and studio.
For me, the experience felt more like visiting an arboretum as I meandered my way through Kirsh’s gardens and whimsical, brightly colored sculptures. My eyes were wide in a sustained state of awe while taking in every exquisite detail. Everything from the entrance’s chartreuse posts, bright red pepper sculpture, and cerulean blue grape screen to each oversized asparagus spear, artichoke, and tomato tucked in her gardens felt joyful. It was joyful.
Stepping inside the beautifully lit studio with my 35mm camera hung over my shoulder, I felt like I had hit nirvana with more of Kirsh’s vegetable and nature-inspired sculptures on display. I unconsciously dropped my bag right in the middle of the entryway of the magical space, overtaken with all the beauty and with an urgency to free my hands to take some photos before the party guests arrived.
Kirsh and I would laugh about the quirkiness of my enthusiasm when we later sat under her locust tree, with its falling leaves dancing in the sun as they made their way to serve as a natural mulch—or leaf litter—in her gardens. Seeing me enjoy her art warmed her heart, it turns out. Which was perfect because I came back wanting to know where she found her joy and what inspired her to support the Community Center’s renovations and capital campaign.
Gardens aren’t the only thing Kirsh grows. She grows friendships and connections among the people she knows and around the projects she works on. That’s where her joy is found.
“I love putting people together and introducing people to each other,” says Kirsh. “I tend to be the catalyst that says, ‘let's go to the play’ or ‘let’s work together.’ It’s all about building connections.”
Seeing people connecting with her art—whether it be a client spanning more than 40 years looking over a matured garden that Kirsh designed and has maintained or seeing someone appreciate one of her sculptures—is what makes Kirsh’s heart sing.
She says projects that make connections and build communities are especially interesting to her because of the impact and importance of the work.
“I think that's why it was easy for me to slip into saying yes to hosting this party,” said Kirsh. “When Community Center Board Chair Langley Shook called me after Mark McInturff, who is a friend and fabulous architect, and they both asked, ‘Would you do this?’ I immediately said yes. I didn't even think about it.”
McInturff is the lead architect behind the light-filled, energy-efficient design of the renovated building and is collaborating with Kirsh on the final touches for the gardens, which will include raised garden beds, seating, paved walkways, lighting, irrigation, and more.
Kirsh is hosting this garden party to help raise money for the building renovations currently underway at the St. Michaels Community Center. She’s also personally and professionally invested in the project.
She is donating her landscaping design services to create a welcoming community garden and courtyard at the Community Center’s renovated building at 103 Railroad Avenue in St. Michaels. The renovations have been underway for the past year and are expected to be completed in early 2024.
“I think the front entry is really going to be special,” says Kirsh, noting that the front entry is very small and, from a design standpoint, is not an easy space. “It’s just this little, pie-shaped piece of land squeezed between the front porch and the sidewalk.”
She says she’s looking forward to seeing the garden’s hardscapes installed which includes the use of Belgian block in the front garden and brick in the small, enclosed courtyard garden in the rear. The entry’s Corten steel planters with custom ipe wood benches will reflect the striking re-design of the building while anchoring the entry garden. Fabrication and installation will all be locally sourced, with irrigation and lighting a part of the project.
Kirsh says the plantings will be informal with a loose, textural quality, including rosemary, lavender, creeping thyme, and native shrubs and grasses. She’ll include a scattering of perennials for a pop of color. The herbs will be included especially for the culinary center’s use, with one of Kirsh’s sculptures in consideration for the overall plan.
“I think what will give me great joy is seeing someone sitting on the two benches, whether they’re waiting for a bus or for a program to start, or just eating an ice cream cone from Justine's around the corner. I want it to be a place where neighbors hang out in that little garden and take it all in.”
The St. Michaels Community Center’s renovations will provide state-of-the-art spaces for more children and adult programs, including a new culinary and hospitality workforce training program. Several classrooms and a large common area for community gatherings, complete with audio-visual technology for presentations and screenings, are included in the design. The renovations will also house a modern, well-equipped commercial kitchen.
“The Community Center serves the community at large with programs and activities for all ages,” says Executive Director Patrick Rofe. “Our modernized building and Jan’s beautifully designed gardens will be welcoming to all our neighbors, including those we help with our food distribution services.”
Rofe says the center currently provides more than 2,500 meals each week to help the area’s working poor, homebound individuals, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and families facing emergencies.
When the renovated building opens in early 2024, the Community Center expects to double the number of people served through exciting new programs for children, career and workforce training for youth and adults, expanded food distribution, community gatherings, and much more.
“Our campaign has raised more than $4 million through the generosity of individual donors, private foundations, and government grants,” says Shook, who is also leading the fundraising committee behind the nonprofit's first capital campaign in its 33-year history.
Kirsh is hoping the guests at the garden party will be inspired to support the campaign, and that they will use their own connections to encourage others to make tax-deductible donations to the campaign.
“I think giving back is especially important on a personal level and in helping organizations like SMCC, especially when it comes to helping children,” Kirsh says.
She realized the importance of giving back to kids and helping boost their self-esteem while teaching art classes at the Academy Art Museum many years ago. Kirsh often bumps into her now-grown students and their comments warm her heart.
“They remind me that they knew me when they were eight or nine years old,” she says. “And they’ll remark that something I said or did made a difference in their lives.”
Kirsh hopes to make a difference in the lives of children that goes beyond her circle of nephews, nieces, great nephews and nieces, the children of friends, and other youth through her work with the gardens of the St. Michaels Community Center.
“I hope these spaces will be where children particularly find their own joy and connections,” she says. “When we plan and build spaces like the St. Michaels Community Center to serve the community, we build vitality into a community that will carry over from this generation to the next.”
Thank you for following the news of the St. Michaels Community Center. Be sure not to miss any announcements or late breaking news by signing up for our electronic newsletter here:
More News Stories:
PROGRAMS & SERVICES