“Alchemy” By Salem Baker

Once home to numerous steel mills and a booming industrial economy, Birmingham, Alabama, was known to many its heyday as the “Pittsburgh of the South”. However, like many steel-producing cities in the United States, Birmingham faced economic challenges in the latter half of the 20th century.

Changes in the steel industry, including increased competition, technological advancements, and a shift in global markets, led to a decline in the steel production sector. This decline had a significant impact on Birmingham’s economy. Businesses moved and once beautiful communities had developed into eye sores.

Despite these challenges, one visionary and opportunist wanted to give back to the community by breathing new life into a historic (yet neglected) downtown district. Michael Muron, founder of Capstone Real Estate Investments, gave Birmingham what is known as the Nextec Building, a 47,000 square foot commercial renovation of the long-vacant Edwards Motor Company complex. Prioritizing small and minority-owned businesses, Nextec offers tenants below market rent rates and other flexible lease terms to provide an opportunity for companies to stay downtown and spur economic development within Birmingham’s Northwest Quadrant.

To complete the project, Muron wanted to add a finishing touch and provide an homage to the city of Birmingham’s past and present. Salem Barker, an Illinois-based artist and sculptor, gave Muron’s gift vision while honoring the city’s history in his creation titled “Alchemy”.

Barker was commissioned for this tribute after his previous experience working with Muron on his piece, “The Outpouring” (located in Homewood, Alabama at the Hilton Curio Hotel). Barker also has a unique history working in manufacturing, making him an excellent partner and choice in the project.

At the direction of Muron, the commission at Nextec had to be something majestic while also bringing together history and industries that have shaped the community. Although once a cauldron for steel mills and manufacturing, the local community has shaped into a harbor for high-tech electronics & medical technology.

Barker’s design for Alchemy is a two-part design glittered with meaning. The base of the project portrays a steel furnace made of weathering steel. The base also includes cast iron gears originally used in the pouring molten steel, a tribute to Birmingham’s steelworks heritage. The second portion serves as an ode to the development of the two new thriving industries shaping the city.

Reaching 28 feet into the sky are two beautifully crafted portraits of flames made of hot-dip galvanized steel. The flames evoke imagery of the violent inferno in Birmingham’s steel furnaces and the ones shaping the surrounding community. The light shines a flecked luster off the galvanized steel, almost making it appear to be a living flame in the community. Only the zinc in the hot-dip galvanizing process could give such an aesthetic beauty.

The design and execution of this sculpture was extremely complex and meticulous. Not only did Barker need to marry two sections of history, but he had to do so using tools that tested the skills of his craft. Barker set out to forge this sculpture using rugged steel and metals. Steel must be strong enough to outlast history and surpass the present. Using weathering steel and galvanized steel, Barker can slow any corrosion process and allow this enormous sight to be gazed at for generations of Birmingham citizens to forge their own history. In April of 2023, Michael Muron was able to erect the final piece to his puzzle. With the passion and vision of both Michael Muron and Salem Barker, Birmingham, Alabama citizens are reminded of their enduring culture and rich history.

The light shines a flecked luster off the galvanized steel, almost making it appear to be a living flame in the community.

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