Sat, April 19, 2014

Man-Made Oasis

Two accomplished craftsmen have quietly brought new life to a row of historic downtown buildings.

The hidden courtyard adjacent to Brad Morton's downtown residence. (Photograph by Judi Atkins Bridges.) (click for larger version)

October 01, 2009

Tucked downtown adjacent to the train tracks that split the city into its north and south sides, sits an oasis. This spot, incongruent with its industrial surroundings, is the creation of an artist, one of two working next door to one another on the block of First Avenue South between 21st and 22nd Streets. Artist Brad Morton and his wife, Sheila, live on the corner, and Morton works here in a foundry he designed and built, sculpting copper and iron into things of beauty. Morton's home, a former saloon called the Seaboard, built in 1897, may be among the oldest buildings in Birmingham. He and his wife suspect it was a brothel. Next door, an artist in a different medium, Bobby Michelson, carves and smoothes solid wood into custom furniture pieces for his business, Ramwood Furniture.

You might drive past this block every day and not notice it, but if you happen to walk past the Mortons' outdoor courtyard, adjacent to their home, you'll pause and stare. It is simple, elegant, and lovely—appointed with enormous, potted long-leaf ficus trees and philodendron. A fish pond is the space's centerpiece, with an enormous metal pinecone dripping water down its sides into the pool. Graceful metal sculptures, suggesting human figures talking closely with one another, stand around the space like guests at an exclusive get-together.

The "Contemporary Couple" are two standing steel and bronze pieces Morton built not long after the events of 9/11, echoing the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The entire scene is framed by a pair of enormous sliding wood doors coated with peeling white paint, on a green-patinaed copper track. From the street, a trio of stained-glass windows tops a gorgeous iron gate, culled from Fritz Woehle's menagerie of antiques and artifacts at The Garage complex on Southside.

One of Brad Morton's sculptures that populate his courtyard. (click for larger version)
The Mortons created this space eight years ago to show off Brad's work. Since the mid-1980s, he has worked here, creating sculptures that can be found in Birmingham and around the nation. Local examples include "Sisters'

Vigil," a grouping of "nuns" keeping watch over St. Vincent's Hospital (on University Boulevard); "The Champion," at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame; and "The Crossing," on the UAB Campus Quadrangle behind the Humanities Building. Nationally, he created a memorial for the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry Division on Arlington Drive on the way into Arlington National Cemetery.

For years, Morton lived in Pleasant Grove and rented the downtown studio. He considered building a living space on top of the studio, he says, after his wife started complaining about the long hours he spent away from home. Meanwhile, the building on the corner, at 2131 First Avenue South, was for sale, but at too steep a price for Morton to consider buying. So he watched as it sat unused for years; eventually, the roof fell in. Morton heard the city was considering condemning the property, and decided to call its owner and make a low offer without ever seeing the space's interior. The owner accepted. Then Morton called the bank.

Brad Morton at work in his shop. (Photograph by Brian Francis.) (click for larger version)

"I met with the bank representative about securing a loan to renovate the property," Morton recalls. "Since it was so close to his office, we decided to walk over and take a look at it. We came upstairs, and this guy in his suit literally stepped through the floor."

Morton somehow got the loan, and he and Sheila overhauled the former saloon/possible brothel (the upstairs had five small rooms with fireplaces) into open, cozy, historic-feeling living quarters with modern amenities. They owned the attached one-story building next door, which they eventually razed to make room for their eye-catching courtyard. Those imposing sliding doors, which offer privacy from the street, are actually pieces of wood recycled from the building's ceiling.

Sculptor Brad Morton. (Photograph by Brian Francis.) (click for larger version)

Much of Brad's metal work in this outdoor area takes natural forms, like the long, twisted, wisteria-vine handrail he created for the stairway leading to the courtyard's rooftop patio. It features structural pieces molded from crape myrtle branches. Morton says it took him nine weeks to make the molds and do the casting off a real vine. The piece then had to be welded together on site, with lots of care to ensure that the vine's twists and turns joined together smoothly. Morton says the downtown spot is a perfect fit for him and his wife, and his work.

"We have enjoyed everything about it," he says. "I have felt more at home here than anywhere else I've lived. I like the solitude, the trains constantly passing by."

Morton's foundry, in his studio next door, sits in stark contrast to the serenity of the courtyard. It's industrial and raw, with metal everywhere, yet here and there sit sculptures he has made, smooth and shining amid the roughness of the iron and steel beams that frame the space. Morton employs a cire perdue (lost wax) bronze casting process, a technique developed some 3,000 years ago and used by ancient Greek, African, and Chinese artisans. It involves creating a ceramic shell mold, coating it with wax, and covering it again in plaster. When heated, the mold wax melts and runs out of the holes in the plaster. Molten lead is then poured into the resulting space. After the work cools, Morton breaks the mold, removes the plaster core, and files or polishes the metal product.

Morton became an artist almost by accident, taking some summer sculpting classes (a part-time passion) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the summer while he was studying industrial design at Auburn University. Through those classes he met two Birmingham-area sculptors "who were making it," he says, and came to serve as an apprentice to them, "learning the basics—bronze casting, welding." Morton moved to the area in 1984 and built a small foundry at Sloss Furnaces, which he used for casting metal. Soon afterward, he moved to his current studio space where, working from a friend's drawings, he built a hoist and boom for a furnace and complete foundry—a process that took nearly eight years to complete. The end result, however, is enviable to those who know how the equipment is used, he says. "Oh yeah," Morton quips, "metal arts students from Sloss come over here and see this and love it."

Bobby Michelson of Ramwood Furniture. (Photograph by Brian Francis.) (click for larger version)

Morton's customers find out about his work through word of mouth; through art consultants with whom he occasionally works to garner commissions; and by viewing sculptures that he has on display at galleries such as the Shidoni foundry and gallery in New Mexico (, where Morton has sculptures priced at up to $30,000. Morton says he would "much rather sell straight out of here than with a large gallery markup and commission."

For the Craft of It
"I like wood—things that are built well, using beautiful design," says Bobby Michelson, owner of Ramwood Furniture. Like Morton, Michelson is running a one-man business, building "furniture art"—contemporary pieces of furniture that are sometimes whimsical in style. Every piece is created almost entirely by hand. Ramwood sits adjacent to Morton's studio, and it is evident on entering that this is an active workshop. The smell of wood permeates the air. Michelson transformed the former warehouse to cater to his particular work, installing a dust system and a spray room for applying finishes to the wood. "I'm the best at making sawdust," he admits, but says much of it he recycles as mulch or sells as bedding for horses, using the larger scraps as firewood to heat his studio in the colder months.

"Belle's Bureau" by Bobby Michelson. (Photograph by Ralph Anderson.) (click for larger version)
Michelson lives in Mountain Brook but works downtown and has been at his space at 2127 First Avenue South since 1984. "I was the first in the neighborhood to renovate the front of a building," he recalls.

"Sinuous Cabinet" by Bobby Michelson. (Photograph by Ralph Anderson.) (click for larger version)

Michelson got his first taste of woodworking in shop class in junior high—his only taste, he says, since his father was a dentist and "didn't have tools." At the University of Alabama, Michelson was a pre-dentistry major on track to follow in his father's footsteps when he switched to marketing. He worked at a local Parisian clothing store in sales for nine months, hating it and considering other careers. Still feeling a passion for woodworking, Michelson conducted an interview with a high-end cabinetmaker, shadowing him in his work for a few days. The man ended up hiring him. He worked there only a short while before being employed by a solid-wood furniture maker. "There I learned to use all the equipment and had the fringe benefit of being able to use his shop after hours," Michelson says. After working there for several years, he ventured out on his own.

A Montgomery native, Michelson had often visited Birmingham, his mother's hometown. He decided to settle here, rented the building he is in today, bought some tools, and "the rest is history."

Michelson's designs, he says, "are figments of my imagination," like a piece he calls "Belle's Bureau," after the talking bureau in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast—one of his daughter's favorites. He gets his wood "from all over," often finding large pieces in estate sales, and ordering exotic woods from around the world—like the striped-looking tiger maple, or quilted cherry, with the appearance of waves running through it.

Michelson says of what he does that "this isn't rocket science; the basics of most crafts aren't that difficult." What is tough, he says, is taking the time and having the patience to hone the craft. "I enjoy the craft of it. It's a challenge to get the tight joinery, the smooth, clean edges. There's the selection of the wood, the sanding—even though it's mundane—and the finishing, which is an art in itself." &

Brad Morton Studios, 2119 First Avenue South, 323-1533. Ramwood Furniture, 2127 First Avenue South,, 323-5070.

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