Conservation of the Fleming Fountain: The Never Ending Story

/ Caring for Art

One of the City’s most beloved landmarks, the Frank Fleming fountain of The Storyteller, is located in the heart of Five Points South. The fountain consists of nine cast bronze animals that form a circle, with frogs spraying jets of water within a cast concrete basin. The primary sculpture in the figure group is a seated “ram-man” holding a staff with one hand and an open book with the other as animals sit clustered around him and appear to be listening to the story read from the open book. A bronze plaque on the fountain basin reads, “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.”

But did you know that this landmark is part of the Birmingham Museum of Art’s permanent collection? In 1990, when the casting was complete and the figures permanently installed, the Museum agreed to take over the fountain’s care, custody, and control, thus ensuring it would be available for future generations to enjoy.

As with all our other outdoor sculptures, The Storyteller needs to be examined and assessed twice yearly in order to determine if our maintenance protocol is keeping it stable and safe. Protecting it from the elements, like acid rain, and the occasional unintended harmful actions of fountain visitors, requires a strict program of examination, washing, and waxing.

Logistics, however, can be daunting when you’re caring for a sculpture that sits squarely at the juncture of five major traffic arteries and serves as a gathering place and photographic backdrop for throngs of residents and visitors. In order to accomplish our treatment, we must first enlist the aid of the City of Birmingham Department of Public Works to drain and pressure wash the fountain’s basin interior. As soon as the fountain is emptied, our art handlers quickly move into place to examine the sculptures up close to determine the efficacy of our treatment program and document current condition. After the exam is complete, they begin the process of carefully washing the figures with a specialized detergent and, if needed, removing any mineral deposits that may be deposited onto the surface. After the washing is completed, and the figures are dry (which doesn’t take long in that unrelenting noon day sun!), they apply several protective coats of a clear or pigmented wax to all the surfaces. The wax saturates the surface and gives the patina a luminous, rich quality but, most importantly, it serves as a protective barrier against harmful substances such as dirt, grime, and acid rain. The fountain basin is then quickly refilled, providing once again a beautiful backdrop for those visitor photographs. In a few months the conservation process begins again because one chapter of The Storyteller’s “never ending story” is the Museum’s deep commitment to protecting this important work of art.