The work begins . . .

  • The art of poured iron is difficult and dangerous. Think of grabbing a hundred pound bucket of molten iron that’s at a temperature above 2,000 degrees and pouring it into a mold ( A spill could go right through a boot. And a pot of liquid cast iron can weigh a hundred pounds. Not something you can do by yourself. Not to mention that it takes roughly half a day to prepare the furnace, load it, and get it to the pouring temperature. And make the molds that the iron is poured into. This requires a seasoned crew where every person involved knows their role and delivers at exactly the right time. Johnny Williams’ crew at Alabama Art Casting have been doing this for 13 years and I’ve observed them many times at Tannehill State Park. When they graciously agreed to help with this project, I knew I had come to the right group.

After I finalized the concept of this project I turned to several other local artists for help with parts of the process that I could not accomplish alone. The molds for the iron pour are destroyed during the process when the finished piece is removed and a pattern is required that can be used over again for making a new mold for each pour. I’ve had some experience with Corian, the solid surface product mostly used for kitchen countertops that I’ve carved with routers and other tools and had a supply on hand, so I elected to use that for my pattern. But my graphic vector files created on a PC must be used to carve the pattern in the Corian and that requires CNC, or computer numerical control, used with a PC controlled carving machine. Enter Keith Elliot, a nationally recognized glass artist currently working at Coral Industries, a local producer of glass products.  Like everyone else that I’ve approached with this project, Keith was anxious to help and invited me out to see his studio/shop. The design only had to be tweaked a very little bit to work with his machine and within several days he had the first pattern produced for the trial run. While all the artists involved have great prior experience in their fields, I am pushing the envelope just a bit with materials and requirements that none have encountered prior to this project. Keith reported that the Corian machined beautifully and Johnny reported that the molds made from the Corian pattern were outstanding. The first test pour produced a beautiful product and everyone who has seen them have been very impressed.

This is a laborious and dangerous production and the final product will be a singularly valuable item in its rarity and meaning in this community. The smaller pieces produced to finance the larger monument should be appropriately priced. I and others have documented the entire project and a DVD will be available for those who support it. Stay tuned for availability once a mechanism is in place for receiving the funds.


Keith Elliot with the CNC carving machine used to make the pattern. He was able to take my computer vector files of the art and transform them into a 3-D pattern to make the mold.




The Pattern looks great! I then cut it out with a table saw and pass along to Johnny and the  Alabama Art Casting group for a trial pour at Tannehill State Park.

Johnny and Jeff from Alabama Art Casting meet with me for breakfast at the Waysider to show me how to improve the process.







After AAC does a test pour, they meet with me to discuss the process and outcome and made some suggestions to improve the process.

in the time-honored tradition of art evolution, Jeff draws out the improvements on a brown paper bag!





A few changes would make it easier to pour the next edition and in the finest time-honored breakfast work-tradition, Jeff sketches out the changes on a brown paper bag in the parking lot.




I think I get it . . . learning a new vocabulary.






Johnny and I pose with the first “sketch-in-iron”.







Raw materials: a pile of bricks gathered from destroyed and damaged homes all over the Forest Lake Neighborhood.




Buckets of items from the debris field around Forest Lake that are pieces of people’s lives. These items will be arranged in a mosaic on the front of the monument.

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After my many years in the screen-printing business, I tend to think in graphics. A graphic image should tell the story. So when I decided to do this project, I began thinking about an image that could capture the idea of the loss from this monstrous event and yet be sensitive to the many people who suffered from it. People died; people lost their homes; people lost their neighborhoods and neighbors. Any image that could capture this feeling of loss and yet not be difficult to look at was elusive. Finally it came to me in its simplicity. I would depict a neighborhood by a grid of squares representing homes—all the same—the storm reduced the mightiest mansion and the least of rentals to the same rubble: the great equalizer. I did not want to even show the monster that caused such despair, so I used the eastern idea of “negative space”; showing it without showing it. The grid of homes comprising the graphic of the neighborhood has a blank area in the shape generally recognized as a tornado. So the space of “not showing” also represents the wedge driven in many neighborhoods across the city. And to use the positive affirmation that was adopted quite early by the Forest Lake Neighborhood of “We are Coming Back” and printed on tee shirts and signs and distributed throughout the neighborhood, I placed this in the text below the graphic in the same shape as the loss, the wedge shaped message that emerges to counter the image of loss. The notion of a “unit” of a neighborhood and then the larger unit of “city” is simply formed by borders that contain the graphics and text.

I also did not want to use negative words such as “destroyed” or “lost” and grappled for the right phrase to describe the loss. My wife, Leah, remembered reading a children’s book named “Black Gold” by Marguerite Henry when she was very young that told of a town in Oklahoma named Skiatook, supposedly named for an Indian village that was destroyed by a tornado and described as “sky took them” in the Native American language. What a beautiful phrase. How descriptive and poetic and simple, and apt. So I chose a paraphrase of the name to describe the event in a sad yet sensitive way: taken by the sky.

When the final image is cast from the iron from destroyed homes, the empty negative space will have a mirror cut to that shape (also recovered from lost homes) and epoxied into that space. The iron plaque will be at an angle on top of the monument and when you look at it, you will see the sky. And if you lean forward a bit, you will see yourself reflected in that space and perhaps feel a frisson of empathy and identification with those who endured it.

A first draft of this image is shown below. The final poured cast-iron plaque will be around 20 inches by 20 inches which is the current limit of the existing process at Alabama Art Casting.

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Who am I and why am I doing this?

My name is William Alford and I was at 400 17th Street East in the Forest Lake Neighborhood on April 27, 2011 when it was destroyed by an F5 tornado (I’ll never admit it was an F4, as officially claimed, because I can’t envision a greater disaster than this). The home I was in was severely damaged and my wife Leah, her mother Hope Hamilton, and I escaped death by preparation, circumstance, and grace. Hope passed away several months after the storm and was listed as the 53rd victim of the tornado event. Leah has chronicled her memories of our experiences on that fateful day on her blog at

I have been in the Forest Lake neighborhood almost daily since the event and have walked the entire area, communed with neighbors, and done what I could to contribute to recovery. After a few months of attending to the imperatives of insurance, security, and reconstruction, I began to fully feel the sense of loss. Before that I had been operating on adrenaline in the haste to attend to unbearable demands and compartmentalized my feelings for another day. Now I began to think that this enormous life-changing event for so very many should be captured in some way to give homage to all the aspects of the disaster. One of my many hats is that of an artist-blacksmith and I am one of the founding members of the Alabama Forge Council, so I am pre-disposed to think in terms of metal. One afternoon I was helping a neighbor (Tanya Mikulas, who has wonderful photos of the tornado aftermath on her website at watch for feral cats during a home demolition and observed the removal of a cast-iron bathtub from the debris. Then the lightbulb went off — use these cast iron tubs from actual destroyed homes to make a memorial plaque to commemorate the loss. The homeowner graciously donated the two tubs and helped to load them into my trailer for transport. Since then many more tubs have been collected and we now have about 2,000 lbs of iron to work with. Photos to come.

Johnny Williams is an old and dear friend who heads Alabama Art Casting at Tannehill State Park ( and I knew he would be interested in such a project and a quick phone call confirmed this. Since then the project has matured and evolved and many people have contributed to the outcome. On this blog I will chronicle the project as it moves forward and I invite you to visit often and see if you might play a role in its progress. My final art concept is that the cast-iron plaque will rest atop a brick pedestal made entirely of bricks from damaged or destroyed homes and the front of the pedestal will have a mural composed of personal items found in the debris field that represent aspects of life in the neighborhood that were lost: children’s toys, doorknobs to homes, parts of automobiles, rosary beads, etc.  At this stage, test “sketches in iron” have been poured and will be on display at the One-Year Memorial ceremony at Coleman Coliseum on April 27, 2012. This is a difficult artform and will be a challenge to bring to fruition, but should be a memorial that will endure for decades to come so that this day will not be forgotten.

This image below is of the test iron pours that may be sold to raise money for the final construction and even possible property location. This process is still being developed and I will report as it progresses. The billets shown are 3 inches x 6 inches and the graphic image is taken from the larger plaque (still to come) and represents the neighborhood (small squares are homes) and the loss is indicated by the negative space in the shape of the storm monster.


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This blog will follow the planning and execution of a permanent memorial to the great loss of life, homes, and lifestyle in the Forest Lake Neighborhood of Tuscaloosa, Alabama following the devastating tornado of April 27, 2011.

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