The Artist and the Rock

Wade Sand & Gravel is an unlikely and extraordinary setting for art.

Written and photographed by Karim Shamsi-Basha

You don’t expect a beautiful, solar-powered aluminum sculpture to come alive in a rock quarry amid millions of year’s worth of sediment. You also don’t expect several artists to have their studios right next to gravel shooting out on belts and piling up several hundred feet. This is the scene at Wade Sand & Gravel in downtown Birmingham, where the quarry plays host to several world-class artists.

Over the last three years, one of these artists, Deedee Morrison, has been very busy.  She has installed 14 pieces of public art in places like Washington, Utah, Florida, Wisconsin, Louisiana, and most recently at the Fairhope Public Library in Alabama.  Each sculpture usually takes six to eight weeks to fabricate and can be anywhere from 12 to 15 feet tall and weigh up to 5,000 pounds.

“Art is about interpretation,” Morrison says. “It starts the moment a person encounters a work of art. I can attempt to explain what I am trying to express, but it really comes down to the experience between the individual and the sculpture.” The creation of the “Charm” series of sculptures begins with a 3,000-pound limestone rock that has been harvested from the Wade Sand & Gravel quarry. Symbols in the sculpture, such as these unevenly balanced “charms,” are attached to the limestone rock and ask, ‘What am I tethered to and what sustains me?’”

After graduating from The University of the South in 1986, Morrison worked in London and Japan for several years before settling down in Birmingham. When her three children were starting school, she enrolled in a two-year welding program. Shortly thereafter, she met Robin Wade Sr., who has a love for the arts and is a local patron. Wade Sand and Gravel is home to about five to eight artists, and Wade offered her a studio spot near the old Republic Steel Mill. For 10 years, Morrison has been creating metal and limestone sculptures and has recently introduced solar power to light them. “I experimented with light and evolved to create sculptures that speak about the need for sustainability,” she says.

Morrison goes on to talk about what she loves doing: creating of sculpture as sustainable art. “I have recently installed solar commissions in Chattanooga and Clearwater, Fla., and have a sculpture that I am working on for a project in Colorado.  My favorite is the Seed Pod sculpture in Chattanooga at the Renaissance Park, which is a green park. The sculpture represents a seed coming out of a dormant state to form new life. The sculpture displays the power and energy that’s available every day from a single solar panel. Near the Seed Pod sculpture is the 18-foot solar tower that, like plants, collects and stores the energy released from the sun. The Seed Pod and the solar tower are intimately connected in the phenomena of life and growth. The solar tower captures the energy of the sun during the day and the Seed Pod sculpture lights up at night.

“I would love to see more sculptures throughout Birmingham,” she says. “We have so many great green spaces. Red Mountain Park would be fabulous for sculpture placed among the old historical buildings. The park has such an interesting natural terrain.”

The artist loves her studio at Wade Sand & Gravel and plans on being there for a long time.

Wade Sand & Gravel is a place of living history with millions of year’s worth of inspiration for artists and their art.

“My father started mining dolomite, for Republic Steel Company, in 1932,” Robin Wade Sr. says. “It was during the Depression. Dolomite is a fluxing material, and supply was not dependable. With mules and wagons, they brought the rock that was loaded by hand, and that is what kept Republic Steel going through rough economic times.  For years, he was the pay master for Republic Steel. He would go to the bank, get a satchel full of money and pay all the workers in cash.

“As a child, I loved being around my father and wanted to be with him and where the action was. He taught me a lot. He leased the quarry from Republic Steel in 1932 and founded R. A. Wade Company.  In the 1970s, we bought the entire property that the quarry sits on and the facilities of the old steel mill from Republic Steel and formed Wade Sand and Gravel. It’s a rare quarry because it’s unusual to find both dolomite and lime rock in one location. Today the quarry produces limestone for aggregate/construction, and dolomite for metrological applications, a fluxing stone in steel mills.”

Wade began asking artists to share the space with his commercial operation back in 1974. “The quarry is on 425 acres of land,” he says. “My wife is an artist, and we both realized that artists need each other and a cheap place to work. I started inviting artists to come here. Some come and stay for a month, some stay for three years. We have had visiting artists from Germany, Amsterdam, England, Ireland, the Czech Republic and from all over the United States.

“The art world needs support,” Wade says. “There are no reasons for art and industry not to work together and assist each other. We all need each other.  My hope is for Wade Sand & Gravel to be a place for artists to live and create.”

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2 Responses to “The Artist and the Rock”

  1. Joanne Fogle says:

    I would like for the Wades to look at my website. I am an Alabama artist who has been using the quarry near my home for subjec t matter as well as the wooded landscape nearby. My personal perspective is one that views both the industrail site and the natural world as equally beautiful and important. I currently have a solo exhibition up at the Shelby County Arts Council in Columbiana, AL and have been working out of a studio at Artists on the Bluff. Thank you.

  2. Kiel says:

    I started the Thomas works at Wade

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