Already Birmingham’s best-known symbol, Vulcan has been reimagined as a new public art display focused on celebrating the city and raising awareness for what it has to offer.
“Today, we take the symbol of our great city and use that as a way of creating a public identity for our great city, to let visitors know that Vulcan represents the best that this city has to offer,” said Birmingham Mayor William Bell during the unveiling at Railroad Park of two replica statues of the cast iron man. “We want to show everybody the pride that we have, with the big guy standing over our city, to make sure we’re a progressive city, to make sure we welcome all individuals here and that we’re walking together,” Bell said.
After months of planning and creation, each eight-foot-tall, 100-pound statue, covered with a weather-resistant clear seal, is on display to the public. One of the replicas is temporarily located near the rain curtain at Railroad Park, and the other is permanently residing at the entrance to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
The idea for building a project around Vulcan grew out of Project Corporate Leadership, a group of young professionals working toward becoming more involved in the community and developing leadership skills.
“Last February, the Project Corporate Leadership group approached Vulcan Park and Museum about a project they were tasked with for bettering the city,” said Morgan Berney, director of marketing and public relations at Vulcan. “Their group came up with the idea of bringing more awareness to our attractions and our cultural institutions, for visitors, for locals, for everyone. And they said, ‘How can we do that?’ We were thrilled when they brought the idea to us to create these ‘mini-Vulcans.’”
The group wanted an image that “basically, represents us all, and brings the community together,” Berney said. “So, they chose Vulcan. They did their research, and they found a company that builds these kinds of things. They made a fiberglass mold first and then made the statue around it. The company sought out local artists to paint them.”
Two local artists, Paul Cordes Wilm and Carrie McGrann were commissioned to provide the artwork for the first two statues. “They were solicited through the Birmingham Museum of Art, and have done projects there,” said Berney. “[McGrann] is a teacher at Simmons Middle School in Hoover, and [Cordes Wilm] is a freelance artist,” she said.
McGrann’s statue, located at Railroad Park, is called “Magic City Lights.” Her artwork depicts the night sky above Birmingham, including the Orion constellation on the front and the Big Dipper on the back, the city’s skyline below, and a kaleidoscope of colors under the anvil to represent the rainbow tunnel in the 18th Street underpass.
“It’s all just about the light — the stars, the sunset, the lights of the buildings,” McGrann said. “And then at the bottom, those are traffic lights. So, that’s really what I see when I come into Birmingham. When I painted the sky, I didn’t want it to look too realistic. I wanted it to be magical, which is why it’s more of a marbled look,” she said.
Cordes Wilm’s statue, at the BJCC, is called “Forging Ahead,” and it features a historical tribute to the city. His goal was to cover his statue with Birmingham pride and make it exciting by using various colors and words as well as depictions of the state of Alabama in both painted and map forms.
“I was thinking about kids looking at it,” Cordes Wilm said. “If I were a little kid, I would want to find something different every time I looked at it — especially with the maps. You could get down and say, ‘I’m from this part of Birmingham,’ or just see actual Birmingham on a statue.”
He wants those who see his statue to realize the transformation and innovation that is happening downtown. “I want Birmingham pride,” he said. “We’re no longer associated with negativity, but positivity. We’re going somewhere, instead of being stagnant.”
The title “Vulcans on Parade” represents the idea of Vulcan marching through town, having a presence beyond the confines of his perch high atop Red Mountain. The hope is that, over the course of the next year, at least 20 businesses or other establishments would want to continue Vulcan’s march by showcasing their own, uniquely designed replicas.
Those that are interested in a statue of their own can choose an artist and have it painted however they like. The art might depict a certain aspect of the city that they feel is worth highlighting, or it could illustrate the nature of a particular business.
“I think it would be really cool if the different communities of Birmingham picked up on it, as well as corporate organizations and other nonprofits,” Berney said. “They’re symbols for the city and unify the city. They’re attractions in and of themselves. They’re just something to bring us all together.”
Berney even foresees an opportunity for these statues with events like the 2022 World Games. “All these sports venues are going to be involved. Wouldn’t it be cool if a place like CrossPlex had one, and they had some runners painted on it, or swimmers, or something like that? There’s just so much potential,” she said.
Representatives of some of the project’s corporate sponsors, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, Brasfield & Gorrie, Protective Life Insurance Company, and Vulcan Materials Company, attended the unveiling. Other companies are on board with this endeavor, too.
“Being at Wells Fargo, we’re going to purchase one of these and have it put in our tower building downtown, for the local people to enjoy,” said Larry J. Uptain, vice president of business development at the bank. “I sit on the board at Vulcan Foundation, and the discussion came up about doing these particular statues. With Morgan speaking about it, I thought this is a great idea. I fully expect to have a great response from the other community businesses when they find out about this particular project. I feel they’ll step up and buy them.”
Uptain has a unique perspective of this project since, in his hometown of Jasper, Alabama, there are statues of mules decorated with artwork, inspired by the city’s coal-mining history. During mining’s heyday, mules had been used in Jasper and other parts of Walker County to transport the coal out of the old, underground mines. Likewise, using Vulcan as a template for the statues in Birmingham serves as a reminder of the city’s iron and steel industries.
The Vulcan project has earned accolades. “Research shows us that Railroad Park’s work is key in retaining the creative class in Birmingham,” said Camille Spratling, executive director of the Railroad Park Foundation. “We’re eager to be a part of an interactive, public art project that celebrates our city and one of its central symbols.” Spratling believes that the vivid colors of McGrann’s statue will go well with the colors that are already visible off of the rain curtain at night.
Asked whether the temporary status of the replica could turn into a permanent fixture of the park, Spratling said, “We would love to have the statue be a permanent fixture. That may be in the works for the future. Permanent fixtures inside the park go through a formal city Design Review process, so that would be the next step to take.”
John Oros, the new president of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, is also excited about the project. “‘Vulcans on Parade’ will truly inspire many of those visitors [coming to Vulcan Park and Museum], and so many other visitors visiting Birmingham, about Vulcan and the core principles that he inspires, that motivates all of us to keep moving forward,” he said.
“I think art is a reflection of the community,” McGrann said. “Seeing more art within the community, I think, shows how people value this city a little bit more. When you are in an environment, no matter what it is, it affects you one way or another. So, the more art you’re around, I really feel like the more connected you feel to those places. I’m happy to know that they’re putting these all over so that there’s going to be a connectedness all across Birmingham.”
To learn more about this project or to get involved, either visit bhamvulcans.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by: Eric LaFiore on Weld