When Sarah Heath first moved from Kansas to Birmingham in 2006, she was astonished at the lack of activity in its city center. “I remember driving around downtown and telling my friend that it was like the shell of a city,” Heath recalled. “It was like a city lived here once inside of all these buildings, and then it moved on, and the shell was abandoned.”
As an undergraduate studying sculpture at the University of Kansas, Heath had first come to Birmingham the year prior for the inaugural Student Cupola Competition at the National Conference of Cast Iron Art, held at Sloss Furnaces. After winning an award for the most innovative student cupola, Heath became an artist-in-residence with Sloss Metal Arts, becoming an unlikely resident of the Magic City. Even more unlikely, Heath has gotten to the heart of the city’s cultural resurgence with her new exhibition AD ASTRA.
Arriving in the wee hours of the city’s oft-cited renaissance, Heath has witnessed firsthand the spontaneous growth of the Birmingham arts scene, as well as the renewed energy in a city center that once seemed like an abandoned shell. Through it all, one constant has been the positivity and support of Birmingham’s artistic community.
One of Heath’s foremost relationships has been with Merrilee Challiss, owner of Bottletree Café and an accomplished visual artist in her own right. When Heath’s residency at Sloss concluded, Challiss paved the way for her to remain in Birmingham. “I’ll never forget what Merrilee said to me,” Heath said. “‘If keeping cool people like you in Birmingham means giving you a job, then you’ve got it.’ That was seven, eight years ago, and I still bartend at Bottletree on Friday nights.”
Heath technically worked at the Bottletree while enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Georgia, allowing her to maintain a connection to Birmingham. Three years of grad school at a prestigious sculpture program were important for Heath, but she still expresses profound relief at the support she finds in Birmingham in the wake of a sometimes cynical atmosphere in Athens.
“Coming back to Birmingham after graduate school was the best decision I could’ve made, honestly,” Heath said. In addition to the practical advantages of working in Birmingham — studio rents are astonishingly cheap, as are raw materials to sculpt with in a post-industrial city — Heath is effusive on the subject of the many artists who have helped to define Birmingham art over the last decade. From the brilliance of sculptor Brad Morton, to the mentoring influence of visual artist Doug Baulos, to the generosity of “art saint” Wendy Jarvis — whose Bare Hands Gallery was the first space to exhibit Heath’s work not owned by Heath’s own mother — Heath is never at a loss for nice things to say about Birmingham artists.
Nowadays, Heath’s art is in considerably higher demand than when she first arrived in town. Named as Birmingham’s 2014 Rising Artist at Magic City Art Connection, Heath currently has a lovely, emotionally affecting show on display at T-Rex Tiny Gallery in Crestwood. Her exhibition — taking its name, AD ASTRA, from the Kansas state motto of Ad astra per aspera, “To the stars through difficulties” — is one of the finest art shows of the year in Birmingham.
AD ASTRA is a set of three thematically linked pieces, including a flock of plastic birds, a mixed media triptych with feathered, quasi-mythological figures, and a set of repurposed photographs from both historic and contemporary Birmingham set in wood blocks with LED backlights. The show is not only deeply personal, showing the character of Heath’s practice, but also resonant for Birmingham as a whole, as it offers a hopeful yet wistful vision of a city torn between its past and its future.
As is common among Birmingham artists, Heath’s work in AD ASTRA blends a conceptually rich theme with a lovely aesthetic and intricate detail. “I have some obsessive tendencies,” Heath said of her work. “Some of my art kind of reflects my need to do something in repetition hundreds of times. Visually, I think what my art represents is a desire to meditate on something simple.”
The simplicity of Heath’s approach is one of the factors making it so appealing, lending AD ASTRA an unmistakably handmade quality. “What’s really important to me in my practice is clean craft, honing a skill,” Heath said. “I can’t let go of my attachment to clean craft — to craftsmanship, to being not just an artist, but an artisan. If you’re going to build something, you’re going to build it right.”
An ongoing theme in Heath’s practice is finding serene refuge in simplicity and skill, a refreshing change of pace from the echo chamber of an art world that tends to favor the audacious and the glib. “I still make work that I want to look beautiful. Art doesn’t have to look beautiful — I might even be considered trite because I aim for beauty — but I do! That’s me. I don’t want to apologize for that,” Heath said.
Citing Oscar Wilde’s statement that “sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism,” Heath expressed her fear at describing herself as a sentimental artist, but the sincerity of AD ASTRA’s emotions are hard to miss. Even in an exhibition as small as this one, there’s an unmistakably Romantic sense that something lost might still be found again, that old wounds might heal, that old wrongs might still be set right. Sepia-toned photographs from the Civil Rights Movement hang across the gallery from phoenix-like figures in a triptych called Everything Is Reborn — with beautifully lit shapes of birds in flight between them — and the conflicted emotions that result are the nuanced and affecting combination this reemerging city deserves.
“I think that there’s such a strong sense of history here, and it’s really touching,” Heath said. “The first time that I went to the Civil Rights Institute, I cried three separate times. … What I’ve watched happen since 2005, when I first came here, and 2006, when I moved here, that’s inspiring. To watch something be reborn, that’s so exciting. I am completely inspired by the tenacity of this city to keep going and just reinvent itself.”
With the benefit of an outsider’s perspective – along with a wealth of honed skill, natural talent and affection for her subject – Heath has accomplished a rare feat. In the course of a personal exhibition, the artist speaks to the challenges of a city that’s trying to take wing while it holds onto its roots.
T-Rex Tiny Gallery’s hours are by appointment. To make an appointment, contact Sarah Heath at firstname.lastname@example.org. AD ASTRA’s closing ceremony will take place from 6-9 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 13.