After a year of restoration under the artist’s supervision in Florida, Yaakov Agam’s “Complex Vision” is back at home on the University Boulevard façade of the Callahan Eye Hospital in Birmingham. The Israeli artist’s 30’x30’ kinetic mural, commissioned by Dr. Alston Callahan (1911-2005), the ophthalmology pioneer and founder of the Eye Foundation Hospital (www.uabmedicine.org/locations/uab-callahan-eye-hospital) that now bears his name, has been a striking landmark in Birmingham’s sprawling medical center since the 1970s.
My mother has a strong bond with the Eye Foundation and a visceral affection for Agam’s mural. After being misdiagnosed for a problem with her left eye by another doctor in another town, her malignant melanoma was diagnosed by Dr. Callahan at the Eye Foundation in 1986. Immediate surgery led to loss of the eye but the cancer was removed and there has been no recurrence. She is now cancer-free for over twenty-nine years.
The Callahan Eye Hospital and its patients seem to become like family. My mother’s ongoing relationship with the hospital and members of its staff is powerful. She is now the patient of “Dr. Mike” Callahan, Alston Callahan’s son, and maintains friendships with employees whose time with the hospital dates back to her 1986 life-saving and life-changing surgery.
Dr. Callahan seems to have envisioned the Agam sculpture as a gift for his patients. He imagined the patient who arrived at the Eye Foundation with impaired vision being able to leave to appreciate the full color and beauty of the mural. Symbolically, from one perspective the mural is black and white; as one moves past it, it reveals itself in its full array of vivid panels of primary colors and patterns.
I know that Mother wants to view it each time she visits the hospital and she likes to drive by it whenever she’s downtown. She missed it over the past year and is delighted at its return. The mural was spectacular as it was but the renovation has clarified, brightened, and reinforced its vibrant splendor.
Dr. Alston Callahan’s lasting influence extends far beyond the Eye Foundation Hospital and the many patients he served. He and his wife, Eivor Holst Callahan, left an impressive legacy as philanthropists and art collectors. Much of their extensive Asian art collection was bequeathed to the Birmingham Museum of Art. The museum’s Indian and Southeast Asian gallery, a meditative room with a window looking across to Linn Park and the skyline beyond, is named the Eivor and Alston Callahan Gallery in their honor. The museum also has an annual Eivor and Alston Callahan Lecture series focusing on Asian art.
In addition to all of that, Dr. Callahan was a seasoned world traveler who went on expeditions to both the North and South Poles. Those adventures, in addition to the Eye Foundation, are commemorated on his gravestone.
The Callahan’s home atop Red Mountain overlooked Birmingham with a direct view across the road to Vulcan, Birmingham’s iconic iron man statue. I once lived in an apartment around the curve from Vulcan and that house and was a fan of the architecture before I ever knew who lived there. The Moshe Safdie-designed house was a modernist vision of dramatic mystery and unexpected angles. It was the kind of house that made one wonder what treasures were to be found inside. It went on the market after Dr. Callahan’s death (his wife preceded him in death in 2002). Unfortunately, the new owners razed the Callahan house and built another more traditional big house in its place. It’s a perfectly fine house, I guess. But now it’s just another big house on the mountain. The Callahan house was one that was destined to live in the memory.
The loss of the Callahan house, however, does not diminish the impressive legacy of Dr. Callahan. That legacy lives on in Birmingham and beyond in the Eye Foundation; the Callahan Eye Hospital; the International Retinal Research Foundation; the art his family collected and shared; the BMA’s Callahan Gallery and Asian lecture series; and the thousands of doctors and patients who are touched directly or indirectly by his influence. Given his impact on my family, Mother’s Day seems to be a perfect time to honor him.
The magnificently restored Agam mural is perhaps the most visible and accessible piece of that legacy. And now it’s back where it belongs.