When the Sloss Blast Furnaces closed in 1971, the site had been an anchor of Birmingham’s industrial life for nine decades. As one of the South’s largest manufacturers of pig iron, the obsolete hulk that was left behind was an inspiration for then-graduate student Joe McCreary, who created a rusting giant for the University of Alabama campus.
Called “Goldie 1971,” the creature has stopped to rest in the sculpture garden of Woods Quad, just outside the Department of Art and Art History where McCreary earned his MFA in 2011. The University bought the sculpture in 2010 and installed the three-ton titan as part of its permanent outdoor collection.
One of five public art installations in the quad, McCreary’s piece honors the workers of Sloss and their jobs smelting pig iron (an element used to make steel). Early concept art for the piece put Goldie to work alongside the ironmen, under grueling and often dangerous conditions. Goldie may not have been vulnerable to the heat and poisonous gasses like his denim-clad brethren, but even a pig iron robot is susceptible to plant closures.
If it’s true that when one doors closes another one opens, Goldie 1971 and Sloss Blast Furnaces are two good examples. Sloss, after ten years of dormancy and decay, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1981. It opened to the public as a museum and event venue and provides artist studios and metalwork classes. Goldie may have dropped down into permanent silence in the middle of Woods Quad, but he’s a reminder to the hundreds of students who pass by every day that art can tell all of our stories. As his creator likes to say, never forget who you are or where you came from.