Last week my neighbor and I drove into Birmingham to walk the Rotary Trail on a sunny autumn morning. This trail opened in 2016 and transformed a vacant railroad right-of-way into an urban pathway lined with commemorative sculpture and plenty of comfortable places to pause, have a seat, and contemplate a while.
We parked near Railroad Park and walked a couple city blocks along First Avenue South to the western entrance of the half-mile trail. That entrance is marked by a 46-foot-tall, blackened steel sign announcing “Rotary Trail in the Magic City.” It is modeled after the iconic “Birmingham the Magic City” sign that once towered outside the entrance to the long-gone Terminal Station. I should mention that the interior of Terminal Station was lined top to bottom and side to side with Sylacauga marble. Built in 1909, it was torn down (along with the marble-trimmed Mobile Post Office), regrettably, before Alabama began to fully appreciate its architectural heritage, including its extensive marble heritage.
At the far end of the trail (24th Street), we came upon yet another use of Sylacauga marble in contemporary sculpture–Frank’s Table–created by Aiken, SC artist Gregory Fitzpatrick.
The large tabletop itself is a highly polished, circular slab of the lesser-known, rosy pink and black Sylacauga marble. Thick seat “cushions” on the chairs surrounding the table are done in the more familiar sugar-white marble. According to Fitzpatrick, both marble choices were quarried in Sylacauga by AM3 (Alabama Marble Mineral and Mining Company).
The sculpture is stunning and a worthy tribute to Frank Stitt who continues to bring international culinary acclaim to Birmingham through four award-winning restaurants–Bottega, Bottega Cafe, Chez Fonfon, and Highlands Bar and Grill, which the James Beard Foundation named the most outstanding restaurant in American in 2018. Stitt and his wife Pardis support the Birmingham community and its philanthropic organizationsin many ways.
Rising from the center of Frank’s Table are two interlocking honeybee wings created from stainless steel. The chairs surrounding the table also feature interlocked stainless-steel honeybee wings as chair backs.
I enjoy discovering the story behind a work of art, and this sculpture does not disappoint. When Gregory Fitzpatrick received the commission, Frank Stitt said he’d like to see an installation that somehow featured bees, so Fitzpatrick studied a bit and learned that a honeybee has two pairs of wings. In order to fly, the bee has to make each pair of wings act as one wing. The smaller wing has tiny barbs that hook it to the larger wing for flight. Thus, a metaphor for the sculptor–“two things coming together to be one thing…all things need to come together to make progress.”
There are six chairs for good reason. “Everyone can come, relax and be part of the sculpture,” says Fitzpatrick. “(We) invite everybody to sit and reside there and relax and let your own mind stop and return to your own peace, love and joy. That’s what it’s all about.”
Frank Stitt and Pardis have spent more than one evening sunset at the pink and black marble table with a little wine and some olives and foccacia. “It’s truly a magical place here in Birmingham–part of downtown, part of this community….The thought of being at table and that we are all welcome is something that’s very, very important, and I hope that we will all, at different times, be at table.”