Category Archives: Arts

Luster of Pearls

The Luster of Pearls: Alabama Writers Hall of Fame inducts twelve

By Edward Reynolds
July 15, 2015

I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.
—Helen Keller


On the evening of July 8, 2015, a dozen literary notables with ties to Alabama received long overdue official recognition when the first class of the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame was inducted. Major sponsors of the Hall of Fame include the Alabama Center for the Book, the University of Alabama Library Leadership Board, and the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a partnership program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The Gala was held in the Bryant Conference Center at the University of Alabama, with close to 300 in attendance.

Table Setting From Writers Hall of Fame Dinner

Table Setting From Writers Hall of Fame Dinner. Photo by Elizabeth Limbaugh

Julie Friedman is a Hall of Fame Committee member, vice-president of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a member of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and currently on the Library Leadership Board at the University of Alabama. Friedman said the notion of establishing an Alabama Writers Hall of Fame began in conversations with Alabama Writers’ Forum Executive Director Jeanie Thompson “dreaming about something that we could do to honor writers who either have been born in the state or have done most of their work in Alabama.”

Friedman elaborated, “We have a vehicle in place to honor living writers either through the Harper Lee Award or through the State Arts Council and through the Governor’s Arts Awards. But we didn’t have anything in place that would recognize writers who were deceased in addition to living writers.” Friedman added that a second class will be inducted around the fall of 2016.

Regarding the criteria for choosing the inaugural class, she explained, “A lot of what we looked at were awards—had they won a Pulitzer Prize—or do they have a national reputation. Did their work have an impact on literature? Johnson Jones Hooper was a tremendous influence on Mark Twain, and Twain even borrowed characters from Johnson Jones Hooper. Augusta Jane Evans Wilson was one of the first published authors from the state of Alabama. When she wrote in the 1850s and 1860s, she sold thousands of books at a time when the Internet didn’t exist and there were no public relations campaigns.

Virtually unknown today, Augusta Evans Wilson was one of the most well-known writers of the 19th century and certainly the most successful Alabama writer of her time. Wilson’s great popularity is evidenced by the number of towns and young girls named for her characters.
The Green Room

In the media “green room,” poet, playwright, and Hall of Fame inductee Sonia Sanchez was absolutely charming. Sanchez, a distinguished member of the Black Arts Movement, addresses everyone as “my sister” or “my brother.” Her warm personality, gray dreadlocks, and sparkling black jacket were mesmerizing. Sanchez, a Birmingham native, moved out of state at age six.
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The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man

Birmingham’s Steve Lowery can’t help picking up a pencil and sketching.



Lowery (right) chats with author and boxing aficionado Norman Mailer at Madison Square Garden during the first Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier fight. (click for larger version)




September 29, 2011

Birmingham artist and musician (and frequent New Orleans resident) Steve Lowery is a fascinating individual. His passion for creating images and colors with pencils and brushes has taken him to Yankee Stadium to draw baseball players and to Madison Square Garden to photograph and sketch boxing matches and concerts. He considers himself one of the blessed. “I’ve had the greatest life in the whole world,” he says with a warm smile.

Born in 1950 in Birmingham, Lowery earned his living as a teen playing bass and singing in bands touring the South, which included stints at the Starlight Lounge in Birmingham in the 1960s. “I almost jumped off the Redmont Hotel over a 39-year-old go-go girl when I was 15,” Lowery recalls, laughing. “I bought her a ring at Lorch’s for $90 and then found out she knew every single guy that came in the club ‘in that special way.’”

Though his musical talents were a large part of his focus, it was his skill as a painter and illustrator that shaped his life and career. At age 18 he received a scholarship to attend the Art Students League of New York. Soon the New York Yankees were using his work. A 1988 Yankee yearbook features Lowery’s sketch of pitching great Catfish Hunter lounging in the dugout, and the late famed catcher Thurman Munson in action.

The two-minute sketch of Salvador Dali that Steve Lowery drew for the cover of The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali. (click for larger version)

“It was a dream job. I basically had a second studio in the first base dugout at Yankee Stadium,” Lowery says. “One of the greatest drawings I ever did was of Billy Martin. I went out drinking with him once. But only once, never again.”

Lowery began to pick up more illustration work, drawing the jacket cover of Chasin’ the Trane, a book on saxophonist John Coltrane that includes testimonies from friends, fellow musicians, and fans praising the jazz great. One of those fans whose praise of Coltrane was included in the book was a 17-year-old teen named Bart Grooms from Birmingham. Grooms has written about jazz for Black & White and laughs when he recalls that he had simply written a paragraph about what Coltrane meant to him after seeing a solicitation for such in DownBeat magazine. “I didn’t even realize they had published it until several years later when I was in college,” Grooms said in a recent conversation.

Steve Lowery’s talents took him to the White House in 1978 where he sketched Andrés Segovia as the famed classical guitarist entertained President Jimmy Carter and a roomful of guests. “I started drawing and Segovia looked at me,” Lowery remembers. “And what it was, he smelled the ink from my pen so I put my pen up and I did a pencil drawing. It took about 15 minutes. I drew two more sketches of him. Segovia was one of the absolute highlights of my life.”

Lowery also worked at the New York Times sports department when the paper preferred a rendering to a photograph. One of his first assignments was a Jets game at Shea Stadium where it was so cold his pen sometimes wouldn’t work. His love of New Orleans later led to friendships with the Neville Brothers, whose band portrait he painted one night after first seeing them at Tipitina’s. A boxing fanatic, Lowery had ringside seats at Madison Square Garden for the first Ali versus Frazier fight, where he chatted with artist LeRoy Neiman as they both complained about Frank Sinatra, who was shooting pictures of the bout for Life magazine. Sinatra kept blocking audience members’ views whenever he stood to snap pictures.

Lowery sketches Muhammad Ali at the champ’s Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, training camp where Ali was preparing for his 1978 rematch with Leon Spinks. (click for larger version)




“I was an artist with Madison Square Garden [and had illustrated] about 30 different title fights, which is what gave me access to get in to shoot bands,” he says, “which led to the Zeppelin tour and all this other stuff.” Lowery did his share of photography as well, making portraits of legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. He also illustrated the jacket cover of Turn Around, a book about Bryant’s first year as coach at the University of Alabama.

However, perhaps his most memorable brush with fame was the day he met Salvador Dali. “I went to art school and I felt pretty hot but I knew nothing technically about art. I just knew I could draw and I’d been drawing since I was four,” Lowery recalls. (“The first drawings I remember making; I used to put tracing paper on my grandmother’s black and white TV and trace Cousin Cliff’s ‘Droodles.’”) “Eventually I went to work at Doubleday—Fifth Avenue and 57th Street—right across the street from Tiffany. Doubleday was the greatest bookstore in the world. There was a wealth of information that I had access to,” recalls Lowery. “I made $67 a week and I’d spend 40 bucks of it on books. And every great artist I ever met came in that store. Dali was the third or fourth one. Dali came in with his wife Gala one day, and he was staying part of the year at the St. Regis Hotel, three blocks down the street. So he came in and I walked up to him and I told him that I had been admiring his work and he looked at me and he said, ‘Do you know who Velázquez is?’ I told him no and he bought me a $200 Velázquez book.”

Lowery clowns around with legendary boxing promoter Don King and fighter Roberto Duran. (click for larger version)

Dali often showed up at the art school that Lowery was attending. He finally found the courage to approach the famed surrealist to ask if he could sketch him. “Dali came in one afternoon and I’d been getting my nerve up, so I walked over to him and asked if I could make a drawing of him. And he said, ‘Sure.’” He gave Lowery two minutes to draw the portrait. Once completed, Dali looked at the sketch but made no comment. A month later Dali’s agent came to the school and said to Lowery, “Dali wants to see you.” “So I went to the hotel and I brought the sketchbook. I went in and Dali is sitting there working on this incredible series of nudes. He says, ‘The book, the book!’ So I handed him the sketchbook that I had drawn him in, he opened it up and tears out the drawing of him and handed me a check for $5,000 and says, ‘This is for my autobiography.’ I bought an Armani jacket that afternoon, I swear. So it came out, it was the drawing for the cover of a book called The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali.” &

To inquire about artwork for purchase, contact Lowery on his Facebook page.

Merry-Go-Round Menagerie

Merry-Go-Round Menagerie

A sculptor and master craftsman shares his skills.


September 15, 2011

Anyone driving through Five Points South in recent years has probably noticed exquisitely-crafted carousel horses in the windows of the apartments directly above Dave’s Pub. In recent months, the animals have migrated half a block across Highland Avenue to the basement of the Hassinger Daniels mansion located next to the new Chick-Fil-A. The carousel horses are created by master craftsman and sculptor Ira Chaffin and his students at the Chaffin Carousel Carving School.

Chaffin, a professional bronze sculptor whose commissioned work includes statues on campus of two of UAB’s first three presidents—S. Richardson Hill and Charles McCallum, began carving antique-style carousel animals in 2001 after a friend in Chattanooga taught him the old-fashioned method of gluing together blocks of wood from which a piece is to be carved (called a “carving blank”).

Sculptor and carving craftsman Ira Chaffin chisels a horse’s head. (Photos: Owen Stayner.) (click for larger version)

Soon after his introduction to carousel horses, Chaffin began teaching wood carving at the Woodcraft Store in Pelham. In 2009 he opened the Chaffin Carving School above Dave’s Pub. Four months ago, he and his wife—an architect for UAB—bought the Hassinger Daniels mansion, where his wife will operate a bed and breakfast while Ira will maintain his studio space in the large basement. (They are only the third owners of the home in over 100 years, according to Chaffin.)

Walking into Chaffin’s basement studio is to enter an enchanted land, where colorful creatures mounted on carousel poles capture the imagination. “We’re not really carving for the carousel industry. All of the students that come here are just doing it for themselves as projects that will probably end up in someone’s home,” he says. Though obviously a labor-intensive, skilled craft, Chaffin insists that sculpting a carousel animal is not as intimidating as one might think. “About half the people I work with have never carved before,” he says. “For instance, that little western-style pony is the first project carved by a local grandmother.”

This example of Ira Chaffin’s sculpting skills never fails to mesmerize observers. (click for larger version)






The gorgeous pony is quite elaborate and includes a carved rifle and pistol as separate pieces that are kept in holsters made into the carved saddle. The pony has a natural horse-hair tail, which Chaffin purchases from a supplier. Horse tails can also be carved from the wooden body instead of using real hair. “My job is to teach people how to use the tools, how to make good artistic decisions, and kind of keep an eye on their progress,” the sculptor explains. “People ask, ‘How long does it take to carve wood?’ And I jokingly say, ‘Well, about an hour!’ It doesn’t take long to use a chisel and hit it with a mallet. The hard part is making artistic decisions about what to carve, what to take away (with the tools) and so forth. So I kind of make that my job as the helper and instructor, to guide them along the way.”

His students can choose any animal to carve. “We’ve done carousel lions, giraffes, warthogs, bunny rabbits . . . but the most popular are horses.” The carousel bunny was carved by a semi-retired doctor at UAB, who has completed several different animals. “He has grandchildren, so you can bet that everybody is going to get an heirloom piece from Grandpa one day,” Chaffin says, laughing.

The carousel bunny was made by a UAB physician. (click for larger version)

The type of wood traditionally used in carving carousel animals is bass wood. “I buy two-inch thick timber from the supplier and glue up enough to make a large enough object for carving for what we want to do,” he explains. “It’s not a situation where we go out and find a gigantic tree. People sometimes assume that.” Creating a horse’s head is probably the most challenging task to master. “Well, I think doing the head study is probably the most intimidating part because you have to do the eyes, in the case of a horse you have to do the teeth. The head is somewhat detailed, although some of the students can get pretty extravagant with their saddles,” he says. The finished figures are painted with either acrylic or oil paint. “Some of the students, I think, sometimes struggle through the carving process just so they can have the fun of painting the animals,” says Chaffin with a laugh. “That’s when the animals really come alive, when they’re painted.”

For access to images as reference material so that students can choose the style animal they want to create, Chaffin has plenty of resources. “I have lots of books and I subscribe to a couple of magazines that cater to the carnival and carousel trade,” he says. “So we have lots of picture references. And we actually have plans that were drawn based on the old carousel animals from back around the 1900s.”

Some students come up with their own design from pictures they have at home, especially family horses. “What I really need is a side view of whatever animal they want to do,” explains Chaffin. The image is then blown up with an overhead projector onto the wall of the studio. A paper cutout of the animal is made so that the size of the wood blank from which the animal will be carved can then be determined. When asked how long it takes to carve a horse, Chaffin grins and replies, “Well, that’s the grand question, and I can never answer very easily. I can use myself as an example. I can produce a completed horse in about a month of hard work, if you think in terms of eight to ten hour days. I have students who putter around for a year or more getting something done because they don’t have the time to devote to it and it sort of drags on. So it depends on how much time someone can devote to the project.”

The joyous expression on the face of this carousel horse captures the magic of the Chaffin school’s carved creatures. (click for larger version)






A California native who studied sculpture at the University of Southern California, Chaffin has taught at the New York Academy of Art and Graduate School of Figurative Art in New York City as well as the 92nd Street YMCA on the Upper East Side; the Palm Springs Village Center for the Arts; and the California State University at San Marcos, among other schools. He also instructs during week-long stints at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina.

The hey-day of the carousel was between 1880 and 1930. Few antique carousels are left in the United States, says Chaffin. The nearest antique carousel to Alabama is located in Meridian, Mississippi. True antique carousels use wooden figures, while animals on modern machines are usually fiberglass or cast aluminum, which can be mass produced from molds. Antique carousels are much more popular in Europe. American carousels turn counter clockwise while European machines rotate clockwise. “There’s an interesting story behind that, which is probably a story I can’t verify but it’s a sensible story,” Chaffin says. “Most of the population is right-handed. And before everybody started suing each other right and left, here in America when you rode the carousel you played a game called ‘Going for the Brass Ring.’ There used to be a dispenser on carousels that would hold out rings, most of which were steel. You’d grab one as you came around and if you happened to get one of the few brass rings, you got a free ride. That’s where the term ‘going for the brass ring’ comes from.”

Coney Island used to have 20 antique carousels. Now the fabled amusement park has only one, which Chaffin not only got to ride alone on one visit, but also got to play Going for the Brass Ring. “Years ago they stopped playing that game because you could see drunk teenagers falling off the carousel and people getting sued,” he says. “A couple of years ago, I had the great fortune of being at Coney Island on a morning when no one was there except the carousel operator,” he recalls. “I told the operator of my interest in carousels and that I was very involved with carving animals. Suddenly he brought out an old brass ring machine!” says Chaffin, excitement rising in his voice. “It was a clown figure and his arm stuck out and it kept feeding me rings. It was great fun and I got to do that!”

(click for larger version)

He points at a magnificent hippogriff creature a student has just finished. “I’m told that it’s a figure in the Harry Potter books. I’m not really in tune to all that,” he admits. “But this hippogriff is a mythological figure. It’s kind of a horse’s body with wings and a bird’s head,” explains Chaffin. “It’s a nice piece but it’s not really a carousel piece because you can’t sit on it, the wings are in the way!” Chaffin Carousel Carving School is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Thursday evening hours are 6 to 9 p.m. On occasion he’ll open on a Saturday if his schedule permits. For prices and other information, go to &