West Alabama man’s whimsical hay bales continue to delight motorists
by Allison Griffin
There’s precious little to break up the rural scenery along this stretch of Alabama Highway 43 between Demopolis and Eutaw.
That is, until you spot some curious creatures – including a 30-foot Tin Man of “The Wizard of Oz” fame – peeking at you from a clearing just south of Forkland, population 597.
This pastureland is home to Jim Bird’s hay bale art, a collection he started as a whimsical gift for his wife, Lib, about 20 years ago.
The background: Lib left for a few days to visit one of their grown children, and Jim stayed home to cut hay. “My baler was putting out all kinds of oddball bales. I pushed them to the side of the field, and I thought later I could take them and make something out of them.
“I made a caterpillar and a spider. I thought I would surprise Lib with them when she got home,” he says, and Lib was certainly surprised! She was also pleased, which pleased him.
It was just the beginning – his collection now numbers more than two dozen. He isn’t creating many sculptures these days, but he takes care of the existing ones and gets some help from his daughter, Avery.
The hay art is more of a hobby than a labor of love for Bird – but it is part of a love story. Look no further than the red heart attached to that towering tin man, which reads, “Jim loves Lib.”
A life well lived
Bird is small in stature, with a warm smile to welcome visitors. At 90, he still lives by himself on the family property, which is farmed and tended by his son, Archie. A member of Black Warrior EMC, Bird remains active, going to a nearby wellness center every day and tending to his artsy creations. He sprays herbicide around each sculpture to keep the weeds down, and repairs those that lose an eye (often a bucket lid) or a nose (perhaps a safety cone).
Such found objects – or junk, if you prefer – are the thread that connects all the sculptures. From the beginning, Bird decided to spend no more than $5 on each creation. The one exception is the tin man – though he used old bathtubs for the feet, 55-gallon drums for the legs, a 1,000-gallon fuel tank with a hole in it for the torso, 30-gallon drums for the arms and an old fertilizer container for the head, he had to buy paint for it, which he figures ran him about $45.
Some of the creations aren’t doing so well. “I’ve got one or two that are dying,” he says; the elements take their toll on the hay bales, as do the occasional vandals and feral hogs, which are tearing up the land near some of the bales.
The last few years have been tough for Bird as well. After 65 years of marriage, his beloved Lib died in 2015 after a long illness, and it’s evident he misses her. They met in Gulf Shores when he was an engineering student at Auburn. “I was going down there to see another girl,” he recalls, but obviously Lib won out. She was from Greensboro and was working as a police reporter for the Birmingham News. “She was quite a go-getter.”
They married and raised four children, and he had a variety of ventures, including opening a junkyard. “My children were going to school, and they put down that their daddy was a junk dealer, so I thought, I’ve got to do better,” so he bought into the John Deere business for a short while. He also bought property near Demopolis that later became the home for Walmart, and was also in the well drilling business. For the last of his working years, he raised cattle and farmed on this 1,000-acre property where he still lives.
And his home was a total loss after fire a year or so ago; fortunately, he wasn’t home at the time, but all that remains are a chimney and the pool. He now lives in a small caretaker’s home a stone’s throw from the old home site, a picturesque setting that overlooks a bend in the Tombigbee River.
“I’m about to play out,” Bird says. He’s not sure if anyone will take over the hay bales; though his daughter helps him, she lives in Gulf Shores.
While he does stay active, he’s slowing down a bit. “I get nothing constructive done anymore,” he says.
Still, he enjoys his creations, and is pleased to offer a visitor a golf cart ride around the property to talk about them.
A few of the creatures have stories attached to them, while others just seemed to evolve, depending on what kind of junk Bird had lying around.
Some of the funny roadside friends are pretty obvious: There’s the alligator, with a hide of hickory bark and a mouth full of beer can teeth. The bunny rabbit has bucket tops for eyes, small pipes for the whiskers and buck teeth and ears made of scrap wood and metal. But some, like the creature with pie plate eyes, a propane tank for a nose and a tractor tire base, are a little more abstract, and their creations elude Bird’s memory.
Even his garbage can is fancifully decorated, with hands of old rubber gloves and a head made of wood topped with moss and oversized sunglasses (though the can seems to have suffered a bit at the hands of the Greene County Public Works sanitation workers). The nearby newspaper box is half swallowed by a bright blue sea creature made of scrap pieces of plastic, with pink eyes (golf balls) and mouth that might be an old bicycle tube.
Unfortunately, the art is not immune to vandals. Bird says he once had a black cat cut out of plywood placed near the road, but thinks fraternity boys from nearby Tuscaloosa absconded with it. And just off the right-of-way is a curious golf cart, topped with an oversized Oriental sculpture and a life-size mannequin at the wheel. Bird says the mannequin is supposed to be him, though the inanimate version is wearing a pink-hued suit and polka-dot hat (for his interview with Alabama Living, Bird was much more conservatively attired).
“Somebody stole me, and I thought I was going to be shopping around fraternity parties,” he laughs. “They threw me in the dump. I found it and just stuck it back up there. I didn’t manicure it.”
Like that mannequin, not all the sculptures are hay-based. A sheet-metal Snoopy flies his similarly-fashioned Sopwith Camel into a pine tree near the highway. A bull, cut up out of a large piece of driftwood, chases a woman dressed in silver bubble wrap (“she’s got several coats of stuff on her. She’s been around awhile,” Bird says). And ET, the extra-terrestrial of 1980s fame, is cut out of sheet metal and wears a sparkling hubcap as he sits atop a spaceship made of an old satellite dish.
He doesn’t play golf or garden or have any of the other usual retirement activities, he says. This is his hobby, though he seems happy that these creatures continue to delight passing motorists.
Some drivers fly right on by, but many honk when they see Bird out tending to the artworks. Others stop just to look and take photos; some stop to chat. He’s been interviewed many times over the years, with write-ups by the Associated Press and the Birmingham News, among other outlets, in addition to documentaries.
“I get a lot of real interesting folks,” he says. One woman brought him a small photo of the tin man, which she found among an artist’s offerings in New Orleans. She asked the artist if he knew the creator of the tin man. The artist wrote a note to Bird on the photo: “Thank you for your art, you are an inspiration.”