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"The Storyteller"

Has a sculpture at Five Points South
Inspired an Urban Myth?

The Storyteller
 
June 12, 1998
BhamOnline.com


One of Birmingham's landmarks is a Five Points South sculpture created by local artist Frank Fleming. The sculpture was commissioned in late 1985/early 1986 by the Birmingham Art Association and dedicated in late 1991. It includes a figure with the head of a ram and a clothed human-like body, a "ram-man." The ram-man is seated on a stump, holding an open book in his left hand and a 9-foot tall staff in his right. An owl is perched atop the staff. Arranged in a circle facing the seated reader are an assortment of animals, gazing attentively toward the reader. A plaque affixed to the fountain reads:


"The Storyteller
Frank Fleming, artist
Born Bear Creek, Alabama, 1940
Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art
Storytelling is a deeply rooted southern heritage. The animals are listening
to a story intended to convey the idea of a peaceable kingdom.
Fleming's deep respect for the dignity and honesty found in nature
is symbolized in these figures."


To the casual observer the sculpture might appear whimsical or might inspire reflection about harmony, about getting along with others, about the animal kingdom, about the artist, or merely an admiration of the sculpture's detail.

But art is subject to interpretation, and some controversy has resulted from one unanticipated interpretation of "The Storyteller." Some believe the sculpture ("the head of a goat on a human body") represents Satan and the five frogs arranged in front of him represent a pentagram. Some believe the sculpture has been the site of satanic rituals, including animal sacrifice, in the wee hours of the morning. That's what I recently heard from an acquaintance. When I asked him if he had seen satanic activity there he replied, "No, but go down there at 2:00 a.m. some morning and you'll see." I asked him if he had been there at 2:00 a.m. and he said he "never goes to the Five Points area." It sounded to me like an urban myth, or what the lawyers call "hearsay."

Curious about the history of the sculpture, I contacted the Birmingham Museum of Art, the sculpture's custodian. The Museum provided material regarding the sculpture, including copies of newspaper articles dating back to 1986. Nowhere in the material was I able to find any substantiation regarding satanic practices at the sculpture. The articles alluded to concerns of some area residents, without providing any quotes or attribution. The copies did contain a number of articles and editorial comments refuting or humorously poking fun at the satanic association.

A search of internet newsgroups related (I thought) to satanic practice in Birmingham provided an e-mail address of someone from Birmingham. I sent an e-mail to him asking if he knew of any satanic activity associated with the sculpture.His reply said he is involved with Witchcraft, which is not, he emphasized, associated with satanism. He advised me the two are often erroneously linked. He was not aware of satanic practices at the sculpture and doesn't believe satanic practices occur there.

I visited the substation of the Birmingham Police Department at Five Points and spoke to an officer there. He told me he has been patrolling the area for four years and has never seen or heard of any satanic activity or animal sacrifice at the sculpture. He pointed to a young woman near the sculpture and suggested I talk to her because, "she lives there."

 

The young woman, Carol, said she has been a regular in the Five Points area for the past ten years. She said she is now homeless, lives in nearby Brother Bryan Park, and spends a great deal of time at the fountain. When I asked her if she knew of any satanic activity at the fountain, she dismissed it as nonsense, saying she has not observed satanic activity or rituals there.

Rather, the sculpture has become something of a friend to those like Carol who live in the area. Carol said they've nicknamed the ram-man "Bob" and told of some presentations of "Bob" the artist probably hadn't intended. The ram-man sculpture includes a back trouser pocket that's partly open. According to Carol the pocket has at times contained various objects: an egg roll, a copy of Playboy magazine, and a condom were mentioned. Carol also noted "Bob" had a traffic cone on his head a few nights earlier; "Bob was a dunce." "We like Bob," Carol told me. "He has to be out here in the summer heat and the freezing winter. He's homeless--like us."



Carol and Bob
Carol with "Bob"


I returned to a more in-depth reading of the newspaper articles. Two, in particular, stood out.

In one, Frank Fleming remarked to an interviewer, "When I started working on the Ram-man, it was around Christmas time. I think in 1984. And, you know, it's a peaceful time and the holiday spirit and all, and I wanted to instill it with a peaceful feeling and that's why if you'll notice, he's got this kind of a slight smile on his face. To convey peace. It bothers me to think that some people would feel that I use this talent I have -- this God-given ability -- to create images of the devil or anything bad." ("Fun & Stuff," October, 1991)

The other was a commentary by Gail Trechsel, identified as "a member of the Alabama State Arts Council and active in arts in Birmingham for about 15 years." (Ms. Trechsel is currently director of the Birmingham Museum of Art.) In it, she discussed art in public places. She noted artwork has been increasingly used by cities and merchants to enhance an area's image. She stated artwork becomes public once it leaves the artist's hands and is placed in a public place, where it may serve to "...humanize spaces, bring people together and exert a unique healing power." She also noted people may view artwork with different interpretations.

"...However, it is only through the revelation and resulting self-examination a powerful work of art demands that we can learn about ourselves and our history.

"Those not pleased with art in the public domain may choose to challenge it.

"Open debate is to be encouraged, but one hopes disagreement is based on study of the work, not on ideological doctrines unrelated to the art.

"Is there something to be demanded from public art? I say yes, and suggest we seek pieces that are original, honest, compelling and that contribute to the community." ("Birmingham News," September 15, 1991)

It is the author's opinion the sculpture adds immeasurably to the character of the Five Points South area. It has become a point of reference, a gathering place for some, a companion for others, and an attraction for visitors to the area. The sculpture has indeed inspired debate, as evidenced by the remarks made to me about satanic rituals at the fountain--remarks from someone who doesn't frequent the Five Points South area. But the debate appears to have gone beyond debate to urban myth.

It's unfortunate that a sculpture inspired by, and intended to connote, peace and harmony should be interpreted as exactly the opposite. But, as Ms. Trechsel observed, it's a way of learning about ourselves.




Click here to view additional photos of "The Storyteller"

Related Information

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About the artist:

Frank Fleming grew up in Bear Creek, Alabama, near the Mississippi state line. "We were very poor and didn't have indoor plumbing until the 60's or electricity until the 70's. So I've had a lot of experience with nature. There were always animals around and they are a primary part of my work."

He became interested in art when a senior in high school, when he was sent to Florence State College for free speech therapy because of a speech impediment. He ended up going to school there while continuing therapy and took an art course, and found out he could draw. "Had I been able to speak clearly, I probably would have gone on to Pontiac, Michigan, with my brothers and would be there working for the auto industry."

"I look closely at nature and how it's abused and the extent of man's irresponsibility for animals and in war. Folks who have the ability to say and do things about it have a responsibility to society. Not that it will change things, but to at least make people think about these issues is very important. I don't dwell on it. I do a piece, make a statement and move on to something else. Usually after I do something serious, I move on to something whimsical."

Fleming doesn't draw sketches prior to sculpting. "I used to make sketches, but once I made a sketch it was as if the idea was already completed, so I wouldn't do a sculpture of it. I don't even write ideas down, because that's documentation too, so I just work from what I see in my head." (source for inormation about the artist: "ALA-ARTS" interview with Fleming, circa August, 1984 or 1985)

Fleming is nationally known. His work has been shown in NY, LA, Washington, Kansas City, Houston, Atlanta, Palm Beach, Santa Fe, Chicago and the Smithsonian.

About the sculpture:

Artist's Statement: "The designed sculpture, 'The Storyteller,' came about because I wanted the entire community to be able to relate to my idea; from the low income children living at a nearby housing project to the most sophisticated medical researcher at the nearby UAB medical complex and including the churchgoer at the adjoining church as well as the young educated lawyer who patronizes nearby restaurants.

"'The Storyteller' evolves from my being born, raised and still living in the South where the lore of storytelling is deeply ingrained in the southern tradition. I found this design competition even more appealing because of the fact that my city has given me tremendous support from the one-person exhibitions at the museum to the financial support through purchasing some sixty percent of my work by local patrons. I feel this first accepted outdoor public sculpture commissioned in someways returns the appreciation and support that Birmingham has given me in the past fifteen years...

"'The Storyteller' with his friends...were chosen to convey the idea of a peacable kingdom as well as the storytelling theme."


Article and images copyright Thomas Enterprises

 

 

 

 

 

 

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