The towering Thomas Coke Works furnaces remain mostly hidden in plain site within the confines of Wade Sand and Gravel at the intersection of Arkadelphia Road and I-59 near Birmingham Southern Collage. Installed during a boom in industrial construction only a few years after Birmingham was founded, the furnaces have overseen the birth, growth, struggles, and rebirth of the Magic City.

While the furnaces breathed their last in 1971, the former site of Republic Steel Corporation, like Birmingham itself, would be reborn. After the property was acquired by Wade Sand and Gravel, the Wade family began offering the grounds to artists in need of studio space. Under the supportive stewardship of Robin and Carolyn Wade, the Thomas Coke Works have become a haven for artists inspired by Birmingham's unique history to create a better future.

These are the artists of the Thomas Project.

John Cleage

John Cleage was born and raised in the burbs of Birmingham. After realizing the "normal life script" was not something he intended to follow, he knew he had to find something that not only provided him joy, but also made others happy and could maybe give them a reason to smile. He took his first glassblowing class in 2008, and as many before him, was bitten by the "glass bug." From that time, he has done anything possible to keep glass as a main focal point of his life.

Karen Cucinotta

Karen Cucinotta studied art at Auburn University in Alabama, Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, Universita Italiana der Stranieri in Italy, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts also in Philadelphia. She works primarily in charcoal, pastel, and oil.

Would it add credence to your art to be one of the few privileged to work in a centuries-old industrial site in Birmingham, Alabama whose structures are gradually being reclaimed by Mother Nature?
I would say yes.

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Christopher Fennell

Sculptor Christopher Fennell builds large-scale structural skeletons from discarded or found objects. The materials he chooses have been cast out or devalued by society and so his selections are based on the kind of message or impact each piece should convey. Originally hailing from Florida, Fennell earned his MFA in Sculpture from the University of Georgia before relocating to Birmingham.

I work under the shadow of the old Republic Steel coke oven, 1890, covered in rivets and wisteria. It's a perfect metaphor for my work: a dialogue between manmade objects and organic forms as exemplified in the 26' tall bean sprouts I made with leaves constructed from 60 little red wagons.

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Reuben Halpern

Born in Poland and educated in engineering in Israel, Reuben Halpern moved to Birmingham in 1977. Today, Reuben stays busy helping his wife and two children run their company, K-chem, Inc., as well as working with Rushton Foundation in its farming program. And of course, Reuben is in his studio every day creating new Metal Art.

Thomas Project gives me the freedom and flexibility to come and go as I need from this all inspiring location. It helps open my mind to creativity. And it's giving me great artistic friendships.

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John Stewart Jackson

John Stewart Jackson is an experienced sculptor, known for his interactive and collaborative approach to space, movement and sound. Jackson studied art at Birmingham-Southern College. With a specialization in cast-iron and bronze sculpture, Jackson spent nine years as a Resident Artist at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in the metal arts program, Sloss Metal Artsm, and seven years as a curriculum specialist, teacher and global arts ambassador for School of the Arts (SOTA) in Singapore. He currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama.

Space is the place. Driving to our studio the landscape, industrial wasteland, mountains of gravel, all create a sense of purpose and enormity in my artistic practice.

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Joe McCreary

Joe McCreary has exhibited sculpture nationally in both solo and group shows and his work has been included in several permanent collections. McCreary has taught introductory sculpture classes at The University of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham as well as teaching casting and fabrication classes at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark. McCreary holds art degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi and The University of Alabama. His work deals with issues of scale, history, food, and humor.

My experience at the Thomas project has been a positive one. The generosity of the Wade family and support from my fellow artists have made much more possible than I could accomplish on my own.

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Timothy R. Poe

Timothy Poe is an Alabama native residing in Birmingham. After serving in the Coast Guard, he earned his BA in Art Studio from UAB. In 1996 at the invitation of Robin Wade, Poe renovated the brick and tin-roof structure of the former Republic Steel Works coal testing lab into a multi-media working studio and became the first full-time artist of the Thomas Project.

My tenure in this 19th-century industrial environment with an icing of limestone gravel has offered a consistent backdrop of visual inspiration. My friendship with the Wade family remains an ever-present supportive and positive position in my life.

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Jimbo Smith

Jimbo Smith is a classically trained artist striving to create artwork that has a universal appeal. He began his artistic training in the field of drawing but soon discovered the expressive capabilities of metal art and began to shift his focus to public art in order to present his work to a much broader audience. Jimbo has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Montevallo.

This place is truly inspiring to me. There's so much history here. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work and make art here at the quarry.

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Jürgen Tarrasch

Abstract painter Jürgen Tarrasch is a German artist who has exhibited around the globe, including Birmingham’s Altamont School and Museum of Art. He earned his M.F.A. from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland.

During the years I have lived in Alabama, I have been exposed to the earthy, organic nature of the state, to its various landscapes and indigenous vegetation. Through an exploration of the environment around me, I have introduced to my work a more three-dimensional aspect based on experimentation with the colors and forms of Southern foliage.

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Robert Taylor

Coppersmith Robert Taylor is a Roycroft Master Artisan, one of only five Roycroft Master Coppersmith in the country to hold that title.

Being at the Thomas Project has afforded me the opportunity to ask ‘What do I want to make today?’ then proceed to make it.

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About our patrons

When Timothy Poe, the first full-time artist to develop sudio space at Republic Steel, asked Mr. Robin Wade why he and his wife, Carolyn, had opened their facility to artsts, Wade explained his philosophy simply:

Artists need other artists.

Truely, the Thomas Project would not be possible without the graceful patronage provided by Robin and Carolyn Wade. Both art and the land are in their blood. The Wade family has been working on the site since 1932 when Wade's father founded R.A. Wade company. Robin Jr. took over his father's business as Wade Sand and Gravel and invited artists to create on the former Republic Steel in the 1990s. In addition to being an artist herself, Carolyn Wade is a longtime member of the Birmingham Museum of Art's Advisory Board.

Thank you for all your support. © 2012-2024
710 Florida Ave, Birmingham, AL 35214
Contact: 205-240-9429 or
Selected photographs by Brit Huckabay used by permission.