|June 12, 1998
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:
Frank Fleming, artist
Born Bear Creek, Alabama, 1940
Collection of the Birmingham Museum
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
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 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
here to view additional photos
of "The Storyteller"
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
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