Elizabeth MacQueen

Elizabeth MacQueen

Sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen was born in Mountain Brook, Alabama, a hop over Red Mountain from Jones Valley where Birmingham was born. In the expanding industrial revolution, taking over from Britain’s steel industry – like a rug jerked out from under during the British Dickinsonian-like times – Birmingham, Alabama, became one of the easiest cities in which to find a job. Elizabeth grew up under the huge shadow cast by the Iron Man sculpted in metal at 56 feet high from his sandaled feet to the tip of the torch held in his extended hand. Vulcan the God of Fire.

Her Great Grandaddy, James Edwards MacQueen (McQueen), Sr., walked into the “corporate office” of the Sloss Furnace Company, one of the city’s first iron producers. He had seen an advertisement in the local paper asking for a Morse Code Man. He was 12. The anteroom was filled with bellicose men slapping each other on the back and telling tales of their extraordinariness, more than likely swapping Jim Crow jokes. They apparently missed a Morse code message sent out on speakers in code asking whoever hears this, please come to a certain door and knock. My Great Grandaddy showed up at the designated door, gently knocked, as the cacophony of voices of potential applicants became more and more animated in the cigar smoke-filled room. The door swung open, and the 12 year old was almost overlooked until, shutting the door, a stern man’s eyes fell on a boy’s hat on the head of a thin youth.

“What do you want, boy?”

“You sent out Morse to anyone who could hear the message, and here I am.”

Dumbfounded, the man leaned down, shook the boy’s hand and said, “Come on in, boy.”

James stepped in under the transom, and the door behind him slammed shut.

Elizabeth MacQueen says:

“From that moment, or perhaps before, in a tribe from the Euphrates, molten metal runs in my veins. Over the years he rose to be what would now be known as President of the Corporation for a few short years. He knew every worker’s name, every wife’s name, and each of their children’s, so he could have Pizitz and Loveman’s department stores close their doors while he purchased Christmas gifts each year for all ages, name tags included, all from memory.

“Molten metal, building and chutzpah run in my family’s veins.

“I just spoke with my daughter and told her I do not hear the phone in the foundry. ‘I know,’ she said.  ‘I grew up in a foundry.’ She is 23. Conclusive.”

“We lived in a bubble”

In 2011, I was driving up to Martha’s Vineyard to find out if perhaps I wanted to settle there. I stopped in Birmingham to see friends for a few days – Hank and Martha Black. Hank and I had been friends since the University of Alabama when he was a reporter. Coming home from work, he brought in a tiny advertisement from Weld for Birmingham, asking for sculptors to compete to create a memorial to the four girls who were in the bathroom when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1963. Excited, Hank asked me to read it and said that it was for me. Curious, I read it and agreed with him. Here in my hand was a piece that fit my philosophy of life and my small but constant battle for social justice wherever I happened to be. We noted that there were only four days left before the final due date. Usually it takes me and my web master a month or more to create a proposal for a particular competition. Instead, Martha helped me for four days and nights to run around getting details, photocopies, and leather-bound books for presentations. Usually I insert schematic drawings, elevations, site specific details, and of course, drawings of the potential piece, then load it all onto a flash drive or a CD.

Evelyn Allen, mother of our former Alabama First Lady Lori Allen Siegelman, my second Mom, let us spread out all our work on her living room floor in her home on top of Red Mountain, where we had a killer view of Jones Valley. So many people helped bring those bound proposals together. Southside UPS and the Birmingham Public Library’s Southside Branch helped often. They knew my name. I would come into the library and ask, “Where is the Spike Lee movie? I have to have the Spike Lee movie ‘4 Little Girls.’ I need it now, today. When is it coming back?” So, the librarians helped me with my research but I don’t think they really knew what I was doing. Kind. Martha and I drove the six bound proposals and a 3-foot by 2-foot presentation board with the glued-on design downtown to the appropriate address printed in the ad, with 20 minutes to spare. I think we double parked.

It was time to “come home,” because I had run from Birmingham, as soon as I could.