The striking Upper Plaza was designed for and exhibits the museum’s most monumental pieces of permanent sculpture, including a major early sculpture by George Rickey. The focal point culminating the entire 13,000-square-foot Upper Plaza is Lithos II, a “waterwall” created by Elyn Zimmerman. This sculpture not only is a representation of the geological striations of Birmingham itself, but also masks the traffic noise from the nearby freeway.
In this elevated area, the overall scale is much larger than the other two spaces, as is reflected by the oversized pergola and the larger granite pavers. Numerous large-scale pieces are accommodated without overcrowding one another, and the space was designed to support extremely heavy loads. Enclosing the north side of the plaza is the wisteria-covered pergola, whereas Lithos II stands to the east, not far from a doorway connecting the garden to the Museum interior through a handicapped accessible entrance.
Lithos II, a 1993 Zimmerman creation, is set in the curved wall of the Upper Plaza. The sculpture measures 12 feet high by 32 feet long and has a pool that extends 8 feet into the plaza. It sits in front of a backdrop of Leyland Cypress trees and is flanked on either side by seating. The monumental water wall and pool of textured granite was designed in a variety of colors and textures that recall in an abstract way geological formation in Alabama.
While visiting quarries during early visits to Birmingham, Zimmerman was intrigued by the stratifications on quarry walls. These bands of colored stone were deformed over time into various shapes and dramatic surfaces. Lithos II (lithos is Greek for stone) was inspired by these formations. The massive blocks of granite are overlaid with the flow of water that further animates the surface of the relief.
Red Mountain Garden Club Memorial Garden
Historically, the Red Mountain Garden Club Memorial Garden has been central to the ongoing act of welcoming visitors to the Museum. For many years, the garden formed the scenic path leading to the main entrance and the masterpieces awaiting within. Today it remains a peaceful oasis downtown, an intersection of the art of nature and man.
As visitors enter the Sculpture Garden they step into the Red Mountain Garden Club Memorial Garden, set apart by the beautiful Blue Pools Courtyard with reflecting pools created by artist Valerie Jaudon, as well as figural art created by Auguste Rodin, Fernando Botero, and Alabama folk artist Charlie Lucas, among others. While the Sculpture Garden is divided into three parts, it is fitting that the first part of it visitors see is the Red Mountain Garden Club Memorial Garden. That garden, site of many a social gathering, and afternoons of quiet contemplation, is the site of the Museum’s original garden, which was designed, built and maintained by the members of the Red Mountain Garden Club.
In 1957, members of the Garden Club came together to contribute toward the Museum, which was to transition from its original site in City Hall, to the space which we now occupy. The Red Mountain Garden Club Memorial Garden opened with the Museum in 1959, and serves as a living reminder of the contributions to the city’s cultural heritage made by members of the Club over the years.
Even when the Museum was expanded and renovated in 1993, incorporating the site of the original garden into the larger Charles Ireland Sculpture Garden, the Red Mountain Garden Club remained involved in the planning of the new space. They have remained intimately involved in the maintenance of the Red Mountain Garden Club Memorial Garden in the years since. Each year, the Club contributes funds and other resources to maintain and enhance the beauty of the memorial garden, including proceeds from their annual greenery sale, which raises money both for our garden and for the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.
The Sculpture Garden is the site of several significant sculptures, exhibitions, and events, including the Museum’s annual Art On The Rocks concert series. While all parts of the sculpture garden attract visitors for various reasons, clearly the serene greenspace of the Red Mountain Memorial Garden, with its tree-lined walk and shaded benches, attracts the most visitors, who sit for quiet contemplation, for conversation, and for a respite from the hustle and bustle outside.
“Our sculpture garden is not only the legacy of great museum supporters, but also a very active, inviting space, an oasis which we’re happy to see serving visitors from all over the community and from all over the world,” says Gail Andrews, director of the Museum.
Largely because of the beauty of the Memorial Garden, the Sculpture Garden was recently designated one of the Great Spaces In America for 2010 by the American Planning Association. It is an honor for the Museum and a tribute to all who had a hand in planning this inviting space. “The Ireland Sculpture Garden, developed through the long-term efforts of the Red Mountain Garden Club, as well as through Museum planning committees and the vision of a team of landscape designers and architects, shows how successful public spaces can reflect collaboration and forethought,” says Mayor William Bell “It remains an excellent example of the way forward for future projects that respect their surroundings and impel pleasant interactions between people and public art.”
The Sculpture Garden’s sunken Court is an open air space used for temporary exhibitions and art-making activities. Measuring 41 feet by 90 feet and located in the middle of the garden, the space is distinctly enclosed by walls, but still visually accessible from the other two areas. A special gravel floor designed with drains and water taps and a grid of electrical outlets has been installed for possible use by artists. The surrounding walls can be repainted or resurfaced, accommodating the artistic choices of contemporary fine artists such as Amy Pleasant (whose installation Suspended occupied the space for much of 2009 and 2010) and colorful populist graffiti artists who took over the space during recent Art On The Rocks events.
The Museum invites sculptors from all over the country and the world to come live and work in Birmingham, using the city’s active industrial sites and dormant foundries as their studios. Oftentimes the resulting work is installed in this space while Museum visitors on look.