Welcome to the Thomas Project—6 artists making a home at an unusual oasis

Thomas Project
Don’t worry—he doesn’t bite. Dinosaur created by Jimbo Smith of the Thomas Project. Photo via Bham Now

Just three miles from downtown Birmingham a portal into another world exists. When you arrive, prepare to be greeted by giant metal dinosaurs, mountains made of gravel and a collection of artists who’ve found a home under the towering Thomas Coke Works furnaces. Take a tour with us through the Thomas Project and meet six of the nine artists currently creating there.

From furnaces to artistic feats

Thomas Project
Jurassic Park vibes. Photo via Bham Now

The Thomas Project is no ordinary studio space for various artistic mediums to practice their work. The property, situated on the grounds of the old coke works plant, is filled to the brim with energy so palpable it’s easy to anthropomorphize.

Located beside Birmingham Southern College and within the confines of Wade, Sand and Gravel, entering the Thomas Projects feels like stepping foot on Mars crossed with a movie set. This unlikely area offers a huge place for sculptors, painters and photographers alike to collaborate and produce award-winning pieces.

Before it offered studio space

Talk to any of the artists at the Thomas Project and you won’t finish a conversation without a big thank you to the Wade family. The Wade family has been working on the site since 1932, but Robin and Carolyn Wade opened it up to artists in the 1990s. Since, it’s become a haven to artists, a source of unlimited inspiration and a place to call home.

Driven by individuals, steered by community

You won’t find air-conditioned studios and trimly painted workshops at the Thomas Project. A little bit of dirt may stick to your clothing and it’s possible you’ll come out with a bug bite or two—but that’s part of the reason it’s home to so many incredible artists. To work there, you have to be totally invested in your art.

Not for everyone, just the right ones

Experienced sculptors Joe McCreary and John Stewart Jackson of Birmingham Sculpture, LLC came to the Thomas Project in search of a new space after working at Sloss Furances. However, just because a space is open doesn’t mean you’re in.

“There’s a process to get in. I ran around and I met with all the folks. They had to determine if I was going to be a nice fit—there is some criteria. Like everyone that comes out to visit a studio space, it’s to elevate what goes on in here.

You wouldn’t want someone who just needs a place to store their junk or someone that’s not as committed to making art so you got to watch out for that. You want people that are going to be active and take advantage of the site.”

Joe McCreary
Thomas Project
Joe McCreary and John Stewart Jackson of the Thomas Project. Photo via Bham Now

And that’s probably why the community at the Thomas Project has the spirit it does. Although each artist works on their individual medium, you can sense and see the collaboration between creative minds. The Wade family has truly created something special in this land of gravel.

“There’s no possible way we could be doing what we’re doing without the Wades supporting us, making this space.”

John Stewart Jackson

You teach me, I’ll teach you

Chris Fennell has been at the Thomas Project for well over a decade and although his abstract and whimsical large scale displays are definitely the intellectual property of his mind only, they couldn’t be created without assistance from this micro-community.

“Everyone is like family—I know everyone here. Another artist taught me how to weld and I taught him about art. The Wade, Sand, and Gravel folks will help me put up a sculpture and I’ll help them weld—it’s very collaborative.

It’s nice having different eyes here—artists will come by and offer their constructive critiques.”

Chris Fennell

Creations at the Thomas Project don’t stop at local commissioned pieces or personal work—many of the artists are working on sculptures or other artwork for big businesses throughout the country. Chris, for example, has commissioned 11 “very large” sculptures for Fort Worth, TX and is currently working on a piece for the Atlanta airport.

Thomas Project
Chris’ large scale public displays have been noticed across the country—including this current project of airplane wings commissioned by the Atlanta airport. Photo via Bham Now

“Birmingham is a great place to create. We have the infrastructure and the people who know how to do it.”

Chris Fennell

So, how do you even stumble across something like this?

Thomas Project
Artists are reaching new heights at the Thomas Project. Photo via Bham Now

In a recent interview with Brad Morton, we discovered he was moving his foundry equipment and a few sculptures to the Thomas Project. That same kind of coincidence or word of mouth seems to be how several artists happened upon the spot.

Stepping on to the property felt wrong—only because the shift in energy and individuality of its atmosphere made it seem as though I should offer a password or sacrificial lamb to be there. While the property itself is that exciting, the process to find it is a little more cut and dry.

For some artists, their reputation, personality and needs preceeded them and the Thomas Project was offered up as the solution to a math problem you didn’t know you were solving.

“I came to Mr.Wade and said ‘I want to build a 68 long foot guitar out of truck frames for Elvis in Memphis where Elvis played his first concert’ and Mr.Wade said, ‘Why don’t you come on out and we’ll just see how it works.’

He was very generous to let me stay here with the other artists and after that I just kept cranking out other sculptures.”

Chris Fennell

Over two decades of the Thomas Project

Who we should be looking to, however, is Tim Poe—the longest residing and first full-time artist to develop studio space at the Thomas Project. We climbed through a makeshift entryway of iron beams over into a grassy side of the property to visit with the artist. Tim first started working in his dream-like studio, which resembles a greenhouse more than a workshop, in 1996.

“Over the years we’ve had 23 artists. At this time we have nine. It’s been an interesting group of people that have come and gone, but I think the group of people we have now will be here for some time.”

Tim Poe

Inspiration strikes while the iron is hot

Thomas Project
John Cleage working on a decorative glass bowl. Photo via Bham Now

If you’re a creative, you understand those wheels never stop. Being in an environment like the Thomas Project it’s easy to let the place breathe life into your work without even knowing it.

“One of the really important things is how inspired all of us out here are by the buildings, by the industry. You find yourself being inspired by all of the old buildings falling down— it sort of creeps in to your work.

You’ll see patterns or things you should be using in your work. You’re so influenced by the surroundings and its history that you want everything to be rusty, or everything to be leaning forward—like the building.”

Chris Fennell

Tim can attest to this, after working at the Thomas Project for over 24 years he uses his work as a timeline for how it’s changed since coming to the property. His current body of work is a process he dubbed “Eglomise’ with Reflective Elements” or, in non-artists terms, reverse painting on plate glass mirror. 

“I have been in sort of a 7-year cycle in that I’ve changed my aesthetic over the years. When I felt that I had come to a place where I had created as many works as I could in that particular medium, that I was satisfied with the body of work, I wanted to do something else. In the studio, I have a timeline and smatterings of my work over the years. Bits and pieces of what I’ve done.”

Tim Poe

A town within a city within a business

Thomas Project
Dinosaur created by Jimbo Smith. Photo via Bham Now

Chris’s assistant, Jimbo Smith, also has his own studio space at the Thomas Project. After creating the Great Blue Heron Metal Abstraction commissioned by The University Of Montevallo, he spent years building up energy to create something else. Finding the Thomas Project was almost, in his words, “like an exorcism” for releasing his creativity.

“This place is like a small town. I knew about the Wades prior to coming out, so the reputation precedes itself. Once I got here and I was immersed in it I had the feeling of being a part of something bigger.

Like part of this really grassroots network of artists. It’s really brought so much out of me, I get to come out here and work on whatever I want work on and they support that. I don’t know anything else like that.”

Jimbo Smith

Inspiration doesn’t always come from others

Part of the benefit to working at the Thomas Project is as simple as having access to equipment. While that’s what drew glass blower John Cleage to the property in the first place, he finds himself taking in the environment and incorporating it into his work.

“Working by myself and having all of this space is a plus. I definitely take walks around this place a lot—for me inspiration barely waits a moment. I’m all about finding that and accepting that for what it is.

A lot of my ideas are out of the spectrum of working by myself and I would need help to make those ideas happen. But, I mean, if I could make a glass tractor I would.”

John Cleage

Visiting, buying and viewing the art

Purchasing

So with all the incredible art being born at the Thomas Project, where does it go? The majority of artists we spoke with are creating commissioned pieces. Some are sold in studios, exhibitions, or stores in Birmingham and across the country.

“We’re happy to sell work out of our studio—we generally don’t have that opportunity. We’ve sold some stuff with ALKMY and do some design and some furniture. Mostly we’re doing commission work.

We love to bring clients out here and have them watch the process—check-in, see what’s happening, see how we’re making something.”

John Stewart Jackson

Visiting

The Thomas Project hosts a variety of events and groups on the property. It could be on a studio basis, such as if you commission a piece of work the artist may invite you out to watch the process. Other times, filmmakers, such as ones from the Sidewalk Film Festival, or a group producing a music video will use the space for educational and recreational purposes.

While getting lost in the maze of the Thomas project can be half the fun, the space is in the middle of an operating quarry. So, it’s best to reach out to Tim Poe directly if you’re interested in a tour or learning more.

Have you visited the Thomas Project? Share your experience with us on social at @BhamNow on Facebook and Instagram, or @Now_Bham on Twitter.