The University of Alabama

Woods Quad Robot Sculpture Draws Attention, Provokes Thought

Goldie, a sculpture by UA graduate student Joe McCreary, will be a focal point of Woods Quad through December 2009. The sculpture symbolizes the shutdown of Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces and the decline of the iron industry nationwide.

Goldie, a sculpture by UA graduate student Joe McCreary, will be a focal point of Woods Quad through December 2009. The sculpture symbolizes the shutdown of Birmingham's Sloss Furnaces and the decline of the iron industry nationwide.

By Richard LeComte

Goldie, the sculpture that looks like a rusty, prone robot, lies mute on Woods Quad. Curious, delighted visitors drawn to the enchanting novelty of a dead or sleeping robot hanging out on the grass in the middle of the University stand next to it and pose for pictures.

But the artwork and its sculptor – UA graduate student Joe McCreary – have a serious story to tell. Goldie symbolizes the closing of Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces in 1972 and America’s passage into the post-industrial era. The robot is not so much dead or sleeping as turned off.

“The robot’s been decommissioned, shut off,” McCreary says. “It’s not needed anymore.”

McCreary’s sculpture will lie out in the Quad until December. The artwork, which may weigh as much as 2 tons, brings a dynamic change of pace to viewers absorbed in UA’s academic life.

“Goldie is a figurative work, so people relate to it,” says Craig Wedderspoon, associate professor of art, who teaches sculpture. “People see in it a reflection of the human condition. They imagine Goldie in different scenarios. It’s a nice break from the perils and stresses of academic life.”

McCreary works as the metal arts education coordinator at Sloss, a national historic landmark and industrial museum that preserves the iron-casting technology. He’s worked there for 10 years. Goldie represents McCreary’s skill at creating art from iron.

“We cast iron art rather than the ingots that the furnaces used to produce,” McCreary says. “We do a lot of tours to educate people about the furnaces. The whole piece relates to my job as a historical preservationist.”

In some ways, Goldie reflects all the shut-down equipment that visitors can see at Sloss. Tons of equipment left over from the furnaces’ heyday still litter the site.

“All around the site there’s heavy equipment – locomotive cranes, big scoops – that’s been decommissioned,” says McCreary, who earned a B.F.A. from the University of Southern Mississippi. “They’re points of interest for the walking tour of the site. The idea is that the robot is a simulacrum for the people who worked at the furnaces and are no longer there. Then there’s the bigger picture of the iron industry in this country – how it’s slowly in decline.”

McCreary worked on Goldie over the course of two years, casting the parts at Sloss Furnaces. In fact, Goldie is named after a Sloss worker who signed his name to a repair made on the No. 1 furnace in 1971.

McCreary created the original patterns out of Styrofoam and wood, then covered them in wax. The iron pieces were cast in resin-bonded sand molds at a temperature of 2,600 degrees. Goldie’s rusted, aged texture arises from techniques performed with this wax covering and the molds themselves.

“I manipulated the wax to put in details,” McCreary says. “Some of the aging, heavily pockmarked, rusted-iron look was done in the molds themselves.”

McCreary cast just about all of the sculpture – two pieces, however, are made from fabricated steel. He then welded the pieces together, iron to iron and iron to steel; he also used load-bearing mechanical connections on some of the loadbearing bolts. The results impressed Wedderspoon.

“I think it’s very well made,” Wedderspoon says. “Joe’s craftsmanship is excellent. It’s extremely well thought out. The attention to detail and the skill and the technique are all accomplished. Nothing looks out of place or wrong. It’s a finished thought.”

McCreary’s plans for Goldie after December are up in the air. He may enter the sculpture in outdoor competitions, or he might bring it back to the Sloss Furnaces. But in the meantime, UA community members can enjoy the somewhat odd sight of Goldie lying on the Quad.

“I originally wanted it to live at Sloss,” McCreary says. “It would make more sense there. It wouldn’t be such a surprise. But it’s been really interesting seeing it at Woods Quad. It doesn’t exactly have a logical context there.”