Saving Art for the People

A 50s era modern mosaic by TVA artist Robert Birdwell is being removed from the Widow’s Creek Fossil Plant and preserved for future generations.

FEBRUARY 4, 2019—Who would’ve thought that a fossil-fueled plant would be the home of a striking and unique piece of public art?

Widows Creek Fossil Plant sits on the edge of Guntersville Reservoir five miles southwest of Bridgeport, Alabama. The Widows Creek Plant was the second modern, large-capacity steam-electric plant planned, designed and constructed by TVA in a series beginning with Johnsonville in 1951. Six units were built at Widows Creek between March 1950 and July 1954; two additional units were added in the 1960s.

While much of the architecture was quite modern at Widows Creek, one design feature carried over from TVA’s earliest architectural plans was particularly progressive—the visitors area. TVA, from its very first days, wanted the public to visit its dams and steam plants to see and experience what it was doing.

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To welcome in the public, the reception room and access corridor at Widows Creek’s 1960’s addition were finished with natural patio tile floors, gray glazed tile walls and off-white acoustical plaster ceilings. In the midst of these plain finishes was placed a stunning work of art. Described as “a colorful mural, executed in ceramic glazed tile, set in a 20-ft-long by 5-ft-high recess located on the south wall of the reception room,” the mural was a visual treat for the visitors. It appears to be an abstract depiction of power and power uses in the region.

TVA artist Robert Birdwell—the painter behind the recently restored mural at Norris Dam—created a series of 126 painted and glazed tiles upon which were placed thousands of pieces of glass to form a mosaic. This artwork is unlike any of the other murals in other TVA power facilities.

Fast forward to today. Widows Creek has been decommissioned and is in the middle of demolition. It became urgent that this unique artwork be removed before the bulldozers destroyed it forever. Three conservators from across the country came together to remove the mural. Coordinating with TVA staff, the conservators were able to detach the tiles off the wall, piece by piece with minimal breakage. The tiles are safely packed away until a suitable location for reassembly and restoration can be found. That’s another win for preserving the incredible legacy of TVA.