Birmingham was born out of iron. "The Magic City", so called because it sprang up out of nothing, seemingly over-night, fueled by the fertilizer of convenient and strategic location to industrial necessities. We may forget it now, mired as we are in a massive inferiority complex, but for the good part of a century Birmingham was an industrial power-house, and the center of industry in the southern United States. And at the center of that industry lay Sloss Furnaces, which we all know now as an aging relic that sits peacefully on the edge of downtown, but which began as a fire-breathing monstrosity, the first of its kind in Birmingham, a dangerous demi-god of molten ore that gave life to a city and took life from those who toiled in its shadow. But the quiet Sloss you know today is not dead, or dying. In the rusty bowels of this once great machine there is new growth, a creative explosion that even the concerned citizens who halted the demolition of Sloss Furnaces could not have foreseen. This artistic renewal is the subject of a new documentary by Alabama Public Television (APT) entitled Sloss: Industry to Art.
This latest entry in APT's Alabama Storytellers series takes a look at the transition of Sloss Furnaces from its heyday as an industrial pioneer to its modern-day status as a mecca for the Cast Iron Art movement, as well as the groundbreaking grass-roots preservation movement that sprang up around the question of its future. Alright, here's where I admit that though I have spent countless hours clambering around the nooks and crannies of Sloss, I had no idea that it was harboring a community of metal artists. When I sat down with Chris Holmes, the film's producer and director, it turns out that he too had been surprised by unknown elements of Sloss's history. "Making this documentary has been a bit of a discovery process for me," he said "in that I started out knowing that there was something documentable, but the deeper I dug, the more I found out about the whole preservation [movement]. The title, Industry to Art you know, as I started pursuing it I found myself being fixated on the breaking point between the two. Where does Sloss step firmly out of industry and into art? As I was digging around and talking to people I discovered [there was] a ten year preservation battle and realized that this was one moment where everything changed course. This place is important for [many reasons], but it's also important as an example of what happens when we hold on to things that are significant or historic, even if we don't know what they're good for. We need to hold on to them [so that] they can provide a home to something that the people who saved them in the first place never could have guessed at."
In this case, that something is Sloss Furnaces' Metal Arts Program, a multi-faceted educational endeavor that encompasses a sculpture studio and art foundry and provides classes and demonstrations to public. It also employs a number of artists-in-residence, who assist in teaching the art of iron casting in return for studio time. Sloss also housed the National Conference on Cast Iron Art last year, and is considered to be the birthplace of the modern Cast Iron Art community.
It's understandable why metal artists find Sloss to be such an attractive place to work. The entire structure is itself a gorgeous metal sculpture, with canary yellow guard rails contrasting against the rich mottled reds of the rusting metal. Giant pipes cast their sinewy shadows onto hulking towers, and plants grow from cracks in the machinery, brilliant green. Everywhere evidence of the impermanent yet everlasting nature of existence abounds. Such conflicts are the life-blood of good artistic thought, and so naturally, only a short time after the museum at Sloss Furnaces opened its doors, the first artist came and requested the opportunity to reside there. But the decay that makes for such an interesting haven will also eventually be its undoing. "It's evident today when you go out there," says Holmes "especially with the benefit of looking at the photos from right after it was restored despite all that restoration that they did, it's all superficial. Almost every object out there is lined with brick, and brick absorbs moisture and it's sitting against the metal so it's essentially decaying from the inside out. [The metal artists] love the place and don't want to see it destroy itself, but they certainly wouldn't want concern over preservation to displace them. To me, that's another point of the documentary, how the two can co-exist, because what good is it if we save it and then just all stand back and look at it? It's so much more important when something can inhabit it."
Sloss Furnaces isn't just a fun place for artists to hang out. It is an essential part of our history and our future. It has been the catalyst for growth more times than is reasonable. It was responsible for the birth of our city, it was responsible for the birth of Birmingham's interest in the preservation of our history and it is responsible for the birth of an entire genre of American art. Who knows what other wonders will come from Birmingham if we learn the lessons of Sloss and save our most precious landmarks from the homogenizing forces of disinterest and instant gratification?
According to Holmes, the development of the film, much like Sloss, was often surprising. "The funny thing about making this documentary is that I learned it was truer than I ever understood at first. I was originally responding to the texture created by holding its history and its contemporary iterations together and going, wow, look how similar but different they are. As we've done it there have been avenues that we've traveled down that didn't really develop into anything, and then there are other avenues that we didn't expect to travel down that blossomed."
Sloss: Industry to Art is a beautifully shot testament to Sloss's legacy, and contains many attractive historic photographs, exciting shots of molten iron, and a compelling soundtrack by local musician David Hickox to compliment its already intriguing story. It will premiere on APT on Sunday, July 25th at 7 p.m., but if you really want to get into the spirit of things, I suggest you head down to the real Sloss Furnaces on Friday, July 23 at 7 p.m. in Cast Shed #1 for a pre-release showing. It's free, and there will be a reception before the film screens at 8 p.m. What better place to learn about the history of the grand old beast than surrounded by its venerable majesty?
For more information, visit www.aptv.org/sloss.
Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.