"Steelworker" is a monumentally-scaled polychrome fiberglass sculpture by Texas-born American artist Luis Jiménez, Jr (1940–2006). The sculpture depicts an African-American steelworker with a long ladle. The significant work ties the museum's collection to Birmingham's history as an iron and steel center. At 147½" x 71 x 37½ inches, the brightly-colored piece makes a strong impact as it stands sentinel outside the Reverend Abraham Woods, Jr Boulevard (8th Avenue North) entrance to the Birmingham Museum of Art.
Jiménez, an El Paso native of Mexican descent, was the son of a sign painter and neon fabricator. He studied art and architecture at the University of Texas, earning a bachelor's degree in 1964. He pursued sculpture as an apprentice to Mexican artist Francisco Zuñiga and moved to New York City in the late 1960s, where he explored social activist themes, sometimes recruiting gang members into collaborations. His interest in valorizing immigrants and laborers, people not often depicted in monumental art, found expression in cast fiberglass resin, a technique familiar to Jiménez from sign-making and hot-rodding. As his work became appreciated he was invited to teach at the University of Arizona and University of Houston. Jiménez was killed in an accident in his studio in June 2006.
The "Steelworker" sculpture was first commissioned by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority of Buffalo, New York in 1982. As Jiménez worked out the design, he first sketched a shirtless black man with a large wrench. People familiar with the industry suggested that the figure would be more recognizable with contemporary safety gear, so the gloves and long coat were added. The wrench was swapped for a ladle, more indicative of the specific work of a steel worker. Later revisions also made the man's race less identifiable, because of the divisiveness between black and white workers, often used as a wedge by mill owners to prevent strikes. Another viewer suggested the yellow helmet, usually designating a maintenance worker, should be changed to red, more typical of the actual steel workers.
"Steelworker" was never installed in Buffalo. Instead, it remained in Texas until the City of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania funded its exhibition at the 1990 Three Rivers Art Festival. The original title, "Hunky - Steel Worker", met criticism there because "Hunky" has been used as a term of derision for unskilled Eastern European workers. One representative of the United Steel Workers union threatened to push the sculpture into the water if the name was not changed. The offending word was quickly ground off of the statue's base. That casting was subsequently purchased by the University of Massachusetts Boston.
An exhibition of Jiménez's drawings and sculptures was brought to the Birmingham Museum of Art by curator David Moos in 1999. The Birmingham casting was purchased in 2001 from Jiménez's studio with funds provided by Whatley Drake LLC, Lanny Vines, Baxley, Dillard, Dauphin & McKinight, J. Mark White, David Duval Shelby, Hare, Wynn, Newell & Newton, Steve Heninger, Shores & Lee, and the Museum Acquisition Fund.
- Lowry, Pat (June 21, 2006) "Places: Late sculptor's 'Hunky' was basis for debate" Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- Regan, Margaret (June 22, 2006) "Dancing With Death: Renowned artist, former UA teacher Luis Jiménez is killed by his own creation". Tucson Weekly
- Aguiar, Jacob (February 16, 2010) "Steelworker". themassmedia
- Birmingham Museum of Art: Guide to the Collection (2010) London, United Kingdom: Giles ISBN 9781904832775