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 who operated the Signature House gallery in the Haskins Williams residence at 1312 20th Street South. McRae's mother Jane McRae and some of his friends in the Five Points South neighborhood envisioned a tiled border around a garden at Five Points. With the encouragement of Cecil Roberts and Mayor Richard Arrington (and his assistant Anne Adams), that idea blossomed into a commission for a sculptural fountain.

Roberts engaged sculptor Frank Fleming to design the piece and set about raising the money to have it cast. 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". After her death in 1990, the design was commissioned from sculptor Frank Fleming through the Birmingham Art Association. Fleming originally planned for the central figure, representing McRae, to be a lion. As he worked, he changed the figure to a ram.

Roberts' friend and Jefferson County Commission president John Katopodis took up the project in Roberts' memory. Funds were raised through special events, including a dinner hosted by Frank Stitt at Highlands Bar and Grill.

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 support the fountain's 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.

A naked man was observed chanting in the fountain on the morning of September 19, 2018. He was brought to UAB Hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

Routine maintenance of the fountain has been estimated at between $2,500 to $5,000 per year. In spring 2023 the museum undertook a second major conservation project, involving repairs to the water features and restoration of the bronze patina. The Stewart Perry Company provided a screen around the work area. Museum director Graham Boettcher reported that the maintenance fund established in Roberts' name had been exhausted and that the museum would solicit donations to rebuild the fund.



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