RUST NEVER SLEEPS
Telling the tale of the artists’ colony at Birmingham’s
Wade Sand & Gravel is a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
by Cathy C. Adams photos by Brit Huckabay
A bundle of story lines intertwine—from preservation and adaptive multi-usage of a historic industrial site to one family’s multi-generational commitment to supporting art and artists in Birmingham to the talent and vision of the individual artisans working collectively in multiple media to create a kaleidoscopic variety of works of art.
The logical place to start is in the beginning, in this case 550-650 million years ago when seams of limestone and dolomite formed thousands of feet beneath the ancient sea covering what is today Alabama.
Fast forward to the year 1868 when Pennsylvania iron maker David Thomas came south to Birmingham and incorporated the Pioneer Mining and Manufacturing Company. In 1886 Pioneer purchased the 2000-acre Williamson Hawkins plantation, with natural assets of water access in close proximity to limestone, iron ore and coal deposits, for four dollars an acre. The first Thomas furnace was created on May 15, 1888, with the addition of a second furnace in 1890.
Cleveland, Ohio based Republic Iron and Steel acquired the Thomas Furnaces complex in 1899, with Republic becoming the largest steel producer in the Birmingham Industrial District. The furnaces closed in 1971.
Robin Wade Sr., starting out as a contract miner for Republic, in 1932 began quarrying dolomite and lime rock on 425 acres of Republic land as the R. A. Wade Company.
“In the 1950s President Eisenhower wanted an interstate highway system like the Germans had,” explains Robin Wade Jr., who joined his father’s business in 1952 at age 21. In the 1970s R. A. Wade merged with Robin Wade Jr.’s Wade Sand & Gravel. When Republic Steel filed bankruptcy in the 1980s the Wades bought the property. Robin Wade III heads the company today, selling crushed stone to general aggregate customers all over the Southeast.
The gritty industrial site has a surreal beauty, with “mountains” of crushed ore, rippled by rain into nature’s designs, crumbling brick buildings with missing windows like sightless eyes, ancient rusting trucks and machinery components scattered as abandoned toys on a giant’s playground. To large-scale sculptors it is a treasure trove of found resources. Past as present, it is a spooky landscape even on a sunny morning.
Since 1974 Wade Sand and Gravel, and the derelict 1880’s architectural treasures built by Pioneer, have been home to artists from around the world who are privileged to enjoy the patronage of the Wade family. Artists in residence pay only a nominal monthly rent, proceeds from which benefit the group as a whole, for studio space.
“My parents took a trip to Germany with the Birmingham Museum of Art Board. She was impressed that Mercedes Benz was supporting artists and asked the Museum of Art to start sending artists to us,” says Robin Wade III. “Steel sculptors need not only big work spaces but also equipment like cranes and access tosources of material. An old industrial site, with pieces of machinery and vehicles left behind, was ideal.”
Robin Wade Jr. speaks with obvious pride of his wife Carolyn. “My wife is an artist, a world class needlepointer. Her petit point pieces have won first place in shows in New York and at the Royal Academy in London As an artist, she knows that artists energize each other. Artists need good inexpensive space to create, and they need each other.”
As avid world travelers, Robin and Carolyn collected distinctly unique objects, perhaps the most outstanding example being a human skull for which Carolyn had to negotiate with a tribe of cannibals. “I’ve been blessed to have Robin and Carolyn as grandparents and to have traveled the world with them taking in art and culture,” says Margot Wade Cooney, one of the Wade’s three granddaughters. “Because of them, an African mask becomes the time we had a spear thrown at us for taking a picture. Art isn’t an object,it’s an experience, a sensation, a conversation, a transformation,” Margot says.
The Wade family has longstanding ties to Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces Historical Landmark, with Robin III serving as President of the Sloss Board. In a natural transition, sculptor Christopher Fennell relocated his studio from Sloss Metal Arts to Wade Sand & Gravel seven years ago. Originally from Clearwater, Florida, Chris enjoyed a stint in New Mexico teaching pottery to Navaho community college students before following his future wife Marion Renneker to Birmingham.
As a creator of monumentally scaled “public art,” Chris carries out commissions for sculptures on permanent display from California to the East Coast. “Working in the ruins of an old steel mill, we are surrounded by the essence of Birmingham. There are found resources on the site in scraps of old machinery and building materials. Sculpture is a visual language. Using recycled materials is not only a powerful image about our choices, but also connects the audience to the artwork through their own personal experiences with those materials.”
Holding a BS in Mechanical Engineering as well as two degrees in art, Chris sums up his creative philosophy: “My artwork is about man and nature, our similarities and differences. I take man-made objects and arrange them into forms found in nature.”
Fennell’s first post college job was in robotics with Motorola. The urge to create from scratch led him back to graduate school in art. While studying for his M.F.A., he built his first colossal sculpture, a “wave” crafted from reclaimed barn wood. “I started in wood because that was what I could afford. With an increasing emphasis on LEED certified buildings, ‘junk’ becomes valuable in creating green sculptures for green buildings.” The barn wave project was followed the next year by fusing 150 bicycles together to represent a tornado. Using discarded objects to create sculpture became his signature theme. “I like revising materials that had lives before.”
Monumental public art commissions sometimes involve as many as 100 artists submitting site specific design concepts. Preliminary paperwork can take up to a year to complete. Chris’ first massive project at Wade was a 68-foot long guitar made of truck frames for the site where Elvis played his first concert in Memphis.
Many of Chris’ huge pieces are interactive, designed “to encourage people to participate, to place themselves inside or to pass underneath and through, seeing the form from several angles.” His background in engineering is critical from a perspective of safety. Welding, sandblasting and painting are done prior to shipment and installation. “You can find people to paint, but it’s hard to find people to climb,” Chris explains. “I learned rope work, akin to rappelling, when I did caving in Florida. It can be dangerous if you don’t go at your own speed and wear a harness. Everyone involved has to pay attention.”
Pointing out blooming wisteria climbing a rusty pipe stack, he continues, “Being a public artist is being aware of what makes people tick. I want to create things that people will appreciate, that speak a dialogue between the mechanical and organic worlds. Making art is like having children,” says the father of two. “You create them, raise them and send them out into the world hoping that they do good.”
“An artist could not ask for better friends or supportive patrons than the Wades,” says Timothy Poe, a glass artist who 22 years ago was the first on-property artist welcomed by Robin and Carolyn Wade. “I love that the site itself is living sculpture and also represents an important part of Birmingham’s history.”