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Meet the Members of The Moth

the mothAudiences across the country cannot get enough of The Moth. With its headquarters in New York City, the not-for-profit organization directs raconteurs as they present submitted narratives to create an experience that The London Guardian calls “brilliant and quietly addictive.” On Wednesday, July 8, the Museum, in partnership with Arclight of Birmingham, will welcome this storytelling sensation to a free, after-hours event inspired by the BMA exhibitions Between Fantasy and Reality: Frank Fleming and Inherited Scars: A Meditation on the Southern Gothic.

Following performances by local storytellers, The Moth’s Artistic Director Catherine Burns, who often hosts NPR’s Moth Radio Hour, and storyteller Tricia Rose Burt, who is frequently on the radio show, will discuss the Moth’s Southern roots, and the rise of the modern storytelling movement. In anticipation of the evening, we set out to learn a little bit more about the two Moth members, who both have southern ties.

Birmingham Museum of Art: How did you both get started storytelling?

Tricia Rose Burt: As a child, I starred in every school play and wrote most of them. But growing up, I was taught that I should not draw attention to myself, and by high school, I just tried to fit in. Still, I kept telling stories to my friends. Somewhere around age 48, after a lifetime of trying to stay appropriately behind the scenes in wordy careers, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to take a public speaking class with her because she was afraid to talk in front of an audience. I thought to myself, “That’s so strange. How can someone be afraid of an audience? I actually look for audiences.” I took the class, and the next thing I knew I was performing a one-woman show that I’d been writing in my head for 13 years. Then I told a story at a Moth StorySLAM in NYC and was hooked. I come from a family of storytellers, so it comes naturally to me − they just tell their stories at the dining room table and not on a stage.

Catherine Burns: Even as a little girl growing up in Alexander City, Alabama, I knew that I wanted to somehow tell stories for a living. I forced my stuffed animals to act out my Disney records and once tried to cast my siblings in a lip sync version of Annie. I wrote stories for the local paper while in high school. I spent ten years as a filmmaker and TV producer, but fell in love with The Moth when a friend took me to a show on my second night in New York. Within two years I’d left the film world behind for live storytelling.

BMA: Do you feel a special connection to Southern stories, since you grew up in the South?

TRB: Absolutely. The rhythm and the pacing feel like coming home. And there are so many amazing Southern storytellers − they don’t all have to be famous, either. Just go to a grocery store and start a conversation.

CB: I do. I love the South. As a Southerner living in the north, being Southern sometimes feels like being from a foreign country. I can feel more connected to a stranger from Alabama than I do to someone who has lived in the apartment across the hall from me here in New York for five years. So many of my favorite storytellers are Southerners. Roy Blount, Jr. comes to mind.

BMA: Aside from their geographic origins, what makes Southern stories unique?

TRB: I was raised in Florida and went to school in Tennessee, and I’m currently commuting to Nashville from New Hampshire in the hopes of making a permanent move. But I’ve spent more than 25 years living in New England. Now, New Englanders are wonderful, but they are very reserved. Southerners are the exact opposite. They are open and matter-of-fact and will tell you every detail of their lives with humor and dramatic flair. Plus, I think the South itself is a character in Southern stories. My one-woman show takes place in the South, and I’ve had audience members say to me, “You know, if this happened in Rhode Island, it wouldn’t be near as funny.”

CB: Southerners have a beautiful way of drawing things out in just the right manner. They know how to include the perfect details so that the suspense builds. They also know how to throw in humor, even during dramatic stories. I also think that culturally, there’s an openness to discussing problems that you don’t always get in, say, New England. Conflict and the willingness to be vulnerable are the cornerstones of great

BMA: I know you’ve been asked this before, but why is storytelling important? What about it compels you?

TRB: It’s all about connection − understanding someone else’s world better. Stories help change how we think about a situation or a person and ultimately how we think about ourselves. We hear a story and think “I’m not alone” or “I’m not crazy” or “She is telling my story.” Stories build community.

CB: We all know that we live in world where we talk to each other less and less. Everything is digital, and we communicate through our gadgets. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rise of the modern storytelling movement exactly corresponds with the rise of social media and digital technology. It’s in our DNA to connect. Storytelling takes out the middleman. Instead of a big blockbuster movie that it took thousands of people to make, it’s just one person on stage, telling their story in their own words. There’s magic in that.

BMA: What makes a good story?

TRB: I’ve been blessed to work with The Moth for several years, and I’ve learned so much. One key to a great story is vulnerability. Tell us not only about your triumphs, but also about your weaknesses and mistakes. Tell us about how you were teased in the third grade because you had a lisp − we’ve all been teased about something. Another key is internal change. How did an event affect you? Who you were before versus who you were after the moment? That change is what helps make a story compelling.

CB: For Moth-style storytelling, we look for stories that involve a change in the storyteller. We all have these moments in our lives when something happens, and it fundamentally changes how we feel about something. A willingness to tell on yourself is also powerful. What most connects us to each other are our foibles, or mistakes. Our missteps make us interesting.

We cannot wait to listen to southern stories and hear more from The Moth members on July 8 at Storytelling and Southern Identity with Members of The Moth! Learn more about the event here.

This performance is funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

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“Victory! Liberty! Peace!” Happy Independence Day!

"Independence Day Ribbon" (1865), unknown maker, American. Silk. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of Dr. Graham C. Boettcher. AFI.113.2007.

“Independence Day Ribbon” (1865), unknown maker, American. Silk. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of Dr. Graham C. Boettcher. AFI.113.2007.

During the nineteenth century, silk ribbons were popular means of commemorating major events, political campaigns, and the deaths of prominent public figures. This 150-year-old ribbon dates from the first Independence Day after the end of the Civil War. The slogan “Victory! Liberty! Peace!” is a line from the popular Union anthem “Columbia’s Guardian Angels,” which was written in 1864 by the songwriter Henry Clay Work. The country was still in mourning over the recent death of Abraham Lincoln, and similar ribbons bear his likeness.

This ribbon was owned by Major William Downie (1820-1893), namesake of Downieville, California, a Scottish-born explorer and prospector, who found (and lost) his fortune there during the Gold Rush of 1849. It descended to his great-great-great grandson, Dr. Graham C. Boettcher, Chief Curator and Curator of American Art at the BMA, who donated it to the collection.

Spotlight on the Collection

July 2015: Spirit Catcher


Spirit Catcher. Frank Fleming, 1982. Unglazed porcelain. Museum purchase with funds from the Members of the Birmingham Museum of Art, 1982.204a-b.

Spirit Catcher, Frank Fleming, 1982

The unicorn-human hybrid in Fleming’s Spirit Catcher sits on a tree stump looking out at the viewer, seemingly unaware of the small bird alighting on his outstretched hand or the snarling dog at his feet. The unicorn man and the dog appear in marked contrast to one other – calm versus rage, enchanting fantasy versus harsh reality.

The art of Frank Fleming has been described as whimsical and intriguing. Though his fantastical sculptures have endless stories to tell – and sometimes seem to embody a biting darkness – he rarely speaks about what they mean to him, preferring instead for viewers to invent their own stories. In his 1982 exhibition Personal Mythologies at the Museum, Fleming said, “We’re in an age where we are bombarded by all kinds of external media. It’s most important for each of us to be able to turn inward to listen, hear, and respond to the personal myths that might (but not necessarily do) dwell inside us.” Throughout our lives, we are shaped and molded by external influences, like family, school, friends, or the media. In sorting through these pressures, we find a personal balance between fantasy and reality.

The unicorn man in Spirit Catcher, one of 18 sculptures in the Museum’s exhibition Between Fantasy and Reality: Frank Fleming (February 27 – August 9, 2015), may represent the imagination of childhood, while the dog may signify the reality of adulthood. Spirit Catcher seems to encourage us to hang on to our individuality and to ignore the voices that tell us not to believe in unicorns who wear button-down vests.

Explore more!

Visit the Beyond Fantasy and Reality special feature in the Museum’s smartguide to explore more works from the exhibition and to hear commentary from artist Frank Fleming.

Join the conversation!

Every day, we handle family dramas, difficult coworkers, deadlocked traffic, and countless other stressors. What do you do to deal with stress or to escape reality? Check out the following links, and join the conversation below!

“The Dalai Lama’s translator explains why being kind to yourself is good for the world,” The Washington Post, May 14, 2015

“How innovations can help us reverse the impact of stress,” The Washington Post, July 3, 2014

“Dialing Back Stress With A Bubble Bath, Beach Trip And Bees,” NPR, July 16, 2014

News Slideshows

Art Camp’s Special Visitor

Every year, when school is out and summer is in full swing, kids keep their creative juices flowing at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Summer Art Camp. This year, campers are exploring and crafting works that tell stories. In keeping with the “Storytelling through Art” theme, local sculptor Carolyn Wass is teaching the young artists sculpting techniques to create alligators and walruses based on artist Frank Fleming’s works, which tell tales in whimsical ways. After the campers finish their pieces, Wass fires the clay at her studio to complete the creations.

To top off the Fleming fun, last week’s campers had the privilege of meeting the artist himself when he visited the BMA for his 75th birthday party. Campers extended a warm welcome to Fleming by singing him the birthday song. A number of the young artists even wanted to give him their sketches, inspired by his works, as presents! Fleming received a camp t-shirt featuring a drawing of his sculpture The Spirit Catcher, and Camp Director Carrie McGrann says that he had “a huge smile on his face.”

Not only do campers exercise their imagination, but they also have a great time! McGrann says, “After attending camp last week, one camper just signed up for all four weeks. She’s enjoying herself so much that she doesn’t care if she repeats activities; she just wants to be here.” It sounds like Art Camp is the place to be!

Want your children to join the fun? It is not too late to enroll in Summer Art Camp! Click here for more information.

5 Faces of Fatherhood

5 Faces of Fatherhood

When we think of Father’s Day, we probably think of our own fathers and grandfathers. However, fathers come in many forms. Check out the different faces of fatherhood that you can find here at the Museum! Enjoy an outing with

This gallery contains 5 images. View All Images »

News Slideshows

Summer Solstice: Centering in on the Sun

Once June arrives in Alabama, it might feel like summer, with school-free days and sweltering heat, has already started. However, the season does not officially begin until June 21, the longest day of the year. For this Summer Solstice, the BMA is celebrating the lasting brightness with sunshine found throughout our galleries.

If you ever need an escape from the sizzling sun, the Birmingham Museum of Art is the perfect place to have some free summer fun! Check out our events calendar and plan your visit today!

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California. Albert Bierstadt, 1865. Oil on canvas. 64 1/2 × 96 1/2 inches. Gift of the Birmingham Public Library, 1991.879. “Sunset, Haywagon in the Distance,” about 1875, Martin Johnson Heade, American (1819-1904), oil on canvas. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Friends of the Museum through Vulcan Materials 1977.192. "Picking Cotton,” about 1955, Robert Gwathmey, American (1903-1988), oil on canvas. Gift of the Alabama Cotton Manufacturers’ Association (second prize in the 1956 Cotton Exhibition) 1956.2. Chatsworth House and Park. Pieter Tillemans (Flemish, active Great Britain, 1684-1734), about 1725. Oil on canvas. 26 × 68 inches. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchase with funds provided by the Sklenar Family – Herb, Ellie, Susan and Tisha; and the Art Fund, Inc., AFI.4.2013. "From Studio Window, Isola di Capri, October Evening,” 1901, Charles Caryl Coleman, American (1840-1926), oil on panel. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Friends of American Art 2010.113. "Mt. Aetna from Taormina,” 1871, William Stanley Haseltine, American (1835-1900), oil on canvas. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Harold and Regina Simon Fund, 2008.16. "The Remains of the Roman Forum,” 1861, David Roberts, Scottish (1796-1864), oil on canvas. Museum purchase with donations provided by the J.A. Vann Charitable Trust in memory of Mr. and Mrs. James Allen Vann 1984.73. “A Dream of Italy,” 1865, Robert S. Duncanson, American (1821-1872), oil on canvas. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art AF110.2009. "Venice: Grand Canal at Sunset,” Thomas Moran, born in Bolton, England (1837-1926), oil on canvas. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Bequest of Virginia Bissell Spencer AF179.2011. "Landscape with sun-bathed lake and wooded shores" Jasper Francis Crospey, United States, oil on canvas laid down on board. BMA Collection, 1985.167.
Chatsworth House and Park. Pieter Tillemans (Flemish, active Great Britain, 1684-1734), about 1725. Oil on canvas. 26 × 68 inches. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchase with funds provided by the Sklenar Family – Herb, Ellie, Susan and Tisha; and the Art Fund, Inc., AFI.4.2013.

Interviews News

Meet the Curator: Kelli Morgan

Kelly-Morgan_sq_webJoining the BMA staff last year as our curatorial fellow, Kelli Morgan has become an integral member of our curatorial team. Since coming to Birmingham, Morgan has been juggling some important projects, including her dissertation, her monthly series Decoding Black Art, and her work in the summer exhibitions Black Like Who? and Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College. Learn more about Morgan in the interview below, and be sure to meet her at her final lecture in the Decoding Black Art series on Sunday, June 21 at 3PM.

Birmingham Museum of Art: You’ve been hard at work on your dissertation recently. Can you tell us more about your area of expertise?
Kelli Morgan: Absolutely! My specialization is African American women’s art, particularly how these women express the tenets of Black feminism and womanism in their artwork. So, my dissertation examines the ways in which six African American women (Edmonia Lewis, Meta Warrick Fuller, Elizabeth Catlett, Betye Saar, Kara Walker, and Mickalene Thomas) explore concepts of Black women’s self-making, autonomy, subjectivity, and personal empowerment through visual expression.

BMA: Rather than an art historian, you’ve been trained as a cultural historian in your doctorate program. Can you give us an example of how this perspective has influenced your work at the Museum?
KM: My training is grounded in political, social, and economic history, specifically how each of these phenomena influence and shape culture and cultural expression. Since the arrival of Africans to this country, racism and various other forms of discrimination have shaped the political, social, and economic circumstances for people of color. Thus, all art forms by African Americans are produced in response to this reality. Some people may not agree with that, but it is in response to a specific material reality at specific points in history that we get ragtime, the blues, jazz, signifying, hip-hop, call and response, and quilting, as well as the various African American literary and visual traditions. The art is how we cope, how we challenge, how we critique, and how we express our experiences.
At the BMA, I have sought to use our collections to illuminate not only how Black visual artists express these concepts, but also how they do so within a very specific African American tradition, such as visual art, literature, or music. These traditions express similar ideas at similar points in history that coincide with, and sometimes break drastically from, the broader social and political movements of traditional Western art.

BMA: During your time at the Museum, you’ve created a monthly series, Decoding Black Art, which began in October 2014 and will end this weekend. Can you tell us more about what you discuss in these lectures?
KM: The premise of the series grew out of my dissertation, “We Are Roses from Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Visuality of Self-making in African American Women’s Art.” The series uses the idea of my project (how black women use sculpture to shape alternative modes of seeing) to create a communicative space where we, as a collective community, can begin to explore and examine how vision — the literal act of seeing or sensing with the eyes — informs our understandings of race and identity and how that plays out in the visual arts. During the talks, I openly discuss how history, politics, economics, and culture shape what we see in systematic ways that greatly influence how we visually interpret certain images. I analyze how African American artists have for centuries utilized a type of visual coding that troubles, challenges, and disrupts the ways in which we come to understand race, identity and, most importantly, art. My responsibility is to utilize the BMA’s collection to create a visual and conversational tapestry with the Birmingham community — one that acknowledges a collective commitment, both institutionally and throughout our various locales, to a conscious and broader expansion of our understandings of race and identity.

BMA: You’ve helped organize two of our summer exhibitions, Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College and Black Like Who?. Can you elaborate on your role in these exhibitions?
KM: For Rising Up, I have primarily helped with the programming. I was deep into dissertation writing as the project began, so I didn’t get a chance to be fully involved in the entire exhibition process. For Black Like Who?, it’s different. I’ve been there from the very start, working with the curator of the show, Graham Boettcher, to enhance the checklist and with exhibition designer Terry Beckham. I’m really excited about the show because it’s such a diverse group of images and artists. I think people will be surprised.

Click here to learn more about the final Decoding Black Art event on Sunday, June 21.


BMA Honors Late Jazz Legend

Ornette. Bob Thompson, 1960-1961. Oil on canvas. 80 7/8 × 77 5/8 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Junior Patrons of the Birmingham Museum of Art, 2002.129.

Ornette. Bob Thompson, 1960-1961. Oil on canvas. 80 7/8 × 77 5/8 inches. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Junior Patrons of the Birmingham Museum of Art, 2002.129.

Yesterday, the world lost a jazz legend. A master of improvisation, Ornette Coleman believed in the imaginative and expressive power of melody. He introduced a new kind of freedom into jazz, liberating it from the rule of harmony. His compositions stood in dialogue with those of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, questioning assumptions about the very nature of the genre.

Born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, this native southerner was awarded prestigious fellowships, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Grammy for lifetime achievement. He graced the stage at prestigious venues like Lincoln Center but also appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and at Bonnaroo Music Festival.

Much like Bob Thompson’s painting Ornette (1960-1961), Coleman’s point of view was unique. Both Coleman’s music and the portrait seem to come from all directions, capturing multiple viewpoints and bursts of abstraction, energy, and color. Thompson paid homage to Coleman’s talent well before the music establishment recognized him as a great musician.

Ornette is currently on view in the Museum’s contemporary gallery. Stop by and visit the painting to help us honor this great musician and the legacy he left behind.

Related reading

“Ornette Coleman, Composer and Saxophonist Who Rewrote the Language of Jazz, Dies at 85,” New York Times, June 12, 2015

“Ornette Coleman, Jazz Iconoclast, Dies At 85,” NPR, June 11, 2015

Mobile Tours News

Audio descriptions added to BMA smartguide

audio-descriptionIn conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Museum has added audio descriptions to the BMA smartguide for signature works in the collection.

Audio description (also called verbal description) is a way of using words to represent the visual world. It enables visitors who are blind or visually impaired to form a mental image of what they cannot see. Audio description can also be useful for visitors without visual impairments who would like to experience a structured, guided looking experience when exploring the Museum on their own. Docents already use verbal description extensively as part of our Visually Impaired Program tours.

Audio descriptions are currently available for these artworks on the “Only Have an Hour?” tour in the BMA smartguide:

Additional audio descriptions will be added for these artworks in the coming weeks:

Artworks with audio descriptions are identified in the galleries with the AD icon; recordings can also be accessed by clicking on the name of the artworks above.

Transcriptions for all audio descriptions, as well as other media content in the smartguide and around the Museum, are also available by request; please call 205.254.2643 for more information.

The Museum opens its doors to people from our community and beyond to explore thousands of years of art and culture from around the world. Every day, staff works hard to ensure that our building, artworks, and programs are accessible to visitors of all abilities. For more information, please visit our accessibility page or call 205.254.2643.