Storyteller fountain

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The Storyteller Fountain in June 2005. Photo by Steve Horne

The Storyteller fountain is a sculptural fountain located in the heart of Five Points South in front of the Highlands United Methodist Church where 20th Street South, 11th Court South & Magnolia Avenue converge. With its realistically-depicted fairy tale creatures gathered around storyteller, the fountain has become a popular local landmark.

The original conception was for a piece of art to be commissioned in Southside as a memorial to murdered art dealer Malcolm McRae. McRae's mother Jane envisioned a tiled border around a garden at Five Points. With the encouragement of Cecil Roberts and Mayor Richard Arrington, that idea blossomed into a commission for a sculptural fountain.

Roberts thought of the work as a way to "to create a place from which a picture could be taken that would immediately be identified as Birmingham". The design was commissioned from sculptor Frank Fleming through the Birmingham Art Association. He originally planned for the central figure, representing McRae, to be a lion. As he worked, he changed the figure to a ram.

Funds were raised through special events, including a dinner hosted by Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar and Grill. Roberts died before she was able to raise enough money to complete the installation. Her friend and Jefferson County Commission president John Katopodis took up the project in her memory.

The City of Birmingham installed the fountain base while Jefferson County provided the remainder of the funds needed to have the statue cast in bronze. The New York Times donated a fund to the Birmingham Museum of Art to pay for its care and maintenance. A plaque on the base reads "Cecil Johnson Roberts, 1914-1990, Humanitarian"

Even before its dedication, the sculpture's central figure, with the head of a ram, along with the five-pointed star created by the smaller figures, have been misinterpreted as having pagan or satanic meanings. Fleming denied any such association in an interview for Fun & Stuff, saying that he intended the figure to have a gentle, peaceful attitude. Mayor Richard Arrington, running for a fourth term in the 1991 Birmingham municipal election, delayed the unveiling of the fountain until after election day on October 8. Reverend Belon Friday opened the dedication ceremony with a prayer, after which a heckler interrupted, shouting that the statue was the "work of the devil." Katopodis shouted him down and continued the dedication uninterrupted.

The homeless community, which sometimes gathers at Five Points South, has christened the figure "Bob", and considers him a kindred spirit.

In June 2007 city workers drained the fountain and painted the interior, below the figures, a bright blue color. No reason has been given publicly for the change, which was harshly criticized by Birmingham News columnist John Archibald. Archibald contacted Fleming about the matter. The artist responded "I guess these days when a city owns a piece of your work it can paint the pedestal whatever color it wants."

On July 2, the city began repainting the fountain's interior black, offering no explanation other than citing their own failure to get approval from the Birmingham Design Review Committee for the change. The following week the fountain was encircled by chain-link fence and a team of conservators from New York City began restoring and preserving the sculptures' bronze patina. Signs on the fence identified the work as a conservation project of the Birmingham Museum of Art.

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