An unknown reality
After downsizing from his 40,000- square-foot studio and team of ten employees, world-renowned metal sculptor Albert Paley reflects on the life of the artist—as well as his own future.
A playground for the imagination, Albert Paley’s home is spacious, yet densely curated. “We create an environment sympathetic to what we respond to,” he says, gesturing to displays of exotic mounted animal horns, seashells, and preserved flowers. As visual artists, Paley and his wife, Frances, seek beauty everywhere. “We look for the unique forms that compose reality,” he says.
Renowned for his colossal metal structures peppered around the globe, Paley achieved—and maintained—international recognition from within the heart of Rochester. After earning his master’s in goldsmithing from Temple University, he chose Rochester Institute of Technology out of eight job offers around the country. “At that time, RIT’s School of American Craftsman [now School for American Crafts] was the primary school for handwork,” he explains. Paley has dedicated his life to education, including an artist residence program alongside Wendell Castle. “Students came from around the world,” Paley says, “from Asia and Europe to study for six months and learn the studio process.”
Arguably one of the most outwardly successful living artists of today, Paley’s sense of fulfilment with a piece comes from within. “If I feel that I’m answering questions without compromise and the integrity is there, and I’ve learned something from the work, that’s all I can ever do.” Part of an artist’s growth, he says, is letting go of the insecurity involved with finishing a project. “When I was teaching students, they would work and work and work and work, and then at the end of a project it would seem like they never got finished. They were great up until the end, but they wouldn’t conclude because they didn’t want to be criticized. So it was their own insecurity that halted their creative process.” To Paley, there’s no such thing as failure in art. “If something doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would, maybe you weren’t thinking right, or you found out something about yourself that’s important to know. But you learn that thing, and it’s incredibly valuable.”
To Paley, the process of exploring discomfort—the unknown—is at the core of being an artist. “For instance, you could do a piece that’s very harmonious and succinct and clear, and then you can do a piece that’s very awkward.” But, for Paley, the most disconcerting piece might be the most valuable one. “Because I’m experiencing something that I don’t know how to deal with it. It’s forcing me to think of a new way; it’s opening up new perspectives.” Much like the awkwardness of adolescence is the most valuable and formative part of our lives, he says, the growing pains of considering new perspectives is what defines an artist. “It’s the uncomfortable process of becoming. So not whether the work you do is ‘good,’ or ‘significant,’ but how are you developing, how are you growing? The process of art is evolving perception.”
That discomfort is the feeling of self-discovery and exploration—the core of art. “The ultimate question is: how does one retain their sense of integrity through the process of living?” The factors of life, he explains, compel us to reside in the realm of comfort. “There are demands of relationship, finances, and all that,” he explains, “and as an artist, if someone likes what you do, they might say ‘I like that—can you make something similar to that?’ and suddenly you get trapped in your own cliché.” This is the death of artistry, Paley says, as it destroys the aspect of research, development, and growth. “You become a one-liner your whole life. So to maintain your integrity as an artist is unlike other careers, where you do this, you do that, and climb the ladder. In the arts, the question is what you are capable of becoming, and while you’re the only one with that answer, there really is no answer. It’s an unknown reality, and that’s the water we swim in.”
The decision not to renew his Lyell Ave fabrication workshop’s ten-year lease is, at its essence, Paley maintaining his artistic integrity. Without the responsibilities of managing staff and the 40,000-square-foot space, he’s free to transition to the next stage of his life as an artist. “All I wanted to do as an artist was create something, and I ended up being a businessman,” he says. “I’ll continue to do my designs, models, and feasibility studies, then outsource the fabrication.” This model, he explains, is common in his field of work—“If you’re a sculptor in New York City, you can’t afford to have a studio like I have here. And there’s a time element. The older I get, the more time becomes valuable. So I want to spend my time more in the creative investigation than the business aspect.”
Part of Paley’s restructuring of his business includes sharing his archives with the world to enhance education. “Whether it’s correspondence, or drawings, or production photography, it’s a massive amount of information,” he says, estimating the digital archive at twenty-nine terabytes of data—about equivalent to twelve thousand feature films. “When I start out with a project, I do hundreds of drawings; then I go to a model stage, usually cardboard, then metal model, and after all the structure and engineering is resolved then it goes to the fabrication stage.” In downsizing his studio, he says, he’s choosing to donate his models to inspire and educate future artists. One-hundred-and-fifty cardboard models will find a new home at the Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum in Iowa. Some of his earlier work, particularly jewelry and goldsmithing, will be on display at Stockbridge, Massachussetts’s Schantz Gallery in July 2020.
In addition to his gallery work, Paley was recently approached for the opportunity to work with a new artistic medium. “The objects I do are tangible, but that all comes out of what I’m thinking or feeling, which is invisible,” he says. “So whether I make a table, a sculpture several stories high, or prints, it all comes from that.” His drawings, he says, are evasive—“I’m thinking three-dimensional even though I draw two-dimensional.” When a rug dealer approached him about converting his prints into artisan rugs and tapestries, he was open to it. “So we have eighty designs in the process, which are being hand-woven in Nepal,” he says.
Whichever dimension Paley is working in, to him it’s the same. “All I can control is the integrity of what I do, and then people respond,” he says. “Having said that, although we all have different paths that we work on, we’re at a society at a certain point of time, and there’s a certain zeitgeist and a certain spirit we all share, and we plug into that in different ways,” he says. “And you just plug into the flow; I mean, we’re all doing it in different ways.”
John Ernst is a Rochester native and (585)’s editor-at-large. You can see more of his work on johnmwrites.com.