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  • Writer's pictureSonny Williams

My Tenure as a resident artist at Wade Sand & Gravel

During my youth, a desire to live my life as an artist was ever-present.  To create never before seen objects with paint and canvas, bronze and glass, the expression of the idea, not completely understood but realized?  Finding this ideal place, this state of mind took time and desire! The opportunity presented itself just after completing a BA in Art Studio at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, I was 40. While a student there I had heard of the former Republic Steel facility in the confines of Wade Sand and Gravel here in Birmingham and that the owners, Robin & Caroline Wade were offering spaces in the facility for use as artists’ studios. June 6, 1996, I met Robin Wade for the first time and we toured the Republic Steel facility founded May 18, 1888, during the height of the industrial revolution, although more than a century later, a dormant icon of steel and fire brick. Most of the network of building waste was intact, deteriorating although restoration was possible for some that could be used as studio spaces. One of the last buildings we inspected on that day was the former coal testing lab with an adjacent shed, C. 1895. The 40 x 80 ft. shed was a cover for the coal cars that deposited loads of coal for testing and then processed to produce Coke, a pure form of carbon when ignited and stoked with forced air could burn at temps over 3000 degrees F drawing iron from ore!

These two buildings would become my studio spaces, I restored the 16’ x 60’ brick building built by Italian brick masons and then constructed my equipment incorporating implements found in and around the facility, it took a little over six months. From this time and forward for nine years I produced sculpture, multi-media compositions, my primary mediums were cast glass combined with bronze and wood. The metaphorical connections and symbolism for most of these compositions referenced the past, present, and future manufacturing processes. How our lives are affected by these processes and the environmental impact of the materials used to produce the finished products. During my tenure as the first resident artist to establish a studio in the coal testing lab buildings of the Republic Steel facility, Robin Wade asked if I would be the liaison between himself and other artists whom I might find to restore other buildings to be used as studio spaces. I maintained this position for 24 years. And after then I…? Well,  life is after all about change…

During the summer of 2005, I changed course and developed new techniques for tarnishing the reflective surface of plate glass mirrors, including the discovery of a process to convert dry sulfureted potash into a stable gel form.  This discovery created a niche small business, “Mirrortique” and I was involved with the production of antique mirror objects until 2013. My occupancy at the Republic Steel Studio remained intact although with infrequent visits during this time.  My current primary medium, Eglomise’ with Reflective Elements / reverse painting on plate glass mirror was initiated and then developed during this time with ‘Mirrortique’. I am albeit unsure if other artists have been influenced/inspired by my work with reflective elements of plate glass mirrors although, I had no prior knowledge of other artists working in this medium until after I had introduced these techniques and compositions from 2006.  If other artists were inspired by my work then, I would be very happy to know this!  In 2013 I reestablished my efforts at the Republic Steel facility and continue to produce two-dimensional art with plate glass mirrors, multimedia sculptures, and then a recent entrepreneurial project developing a new design of a one-piece wood baseball bat, Maintaining my presence at the coal testing lab facility in the confines of Wade Sand & Gravel, I continue to produce objects of art from plate glass mirror / Eglomise’ w Reflective Elements.

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