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ALBERT & FRANCES PALEY

Albert Paley thinks big and builds big. A strong man with razor sharp perception and stoic resolve, Paley is a living, eating, breathing, metal-bending machine. He constantly has form and structure on his mind. The forged metal magician is a critical thinker who challenges the boundaries of space and theories of design. Paley is one of the world’s foremost sculptors, a gifted lecturer and has twice narrowly escaped death. Like his artwork, Albert Paley is built to last.

Years of serious Zen training have taught Frances Paley how to use the power of the mind – inward and then outward. It has given her a quiet confidence that shows in her photography. Images captured on black and white film are then given new life by introducing color through the computer. The color and light seem to reverberate from within the image – inward and then outward. From her days as a foot soldier in the early women’s equality movement to her search for enlightenment to her life long artistic journey, she is a woman who knows her mind. Tough, smart and sensitive, she is a woman of substance.

For the last 30 years, the Paleys have forged an unbreakable bond. Like Albert’s weathering steel sculptures, their relationship has become better and more beautiful with time. Like Frances’s photography, they have colorful, intellectual exchanges that strengthen their core. Their love is easy, their life is work. In order to appreciate their union, you must first understand their art – because it’s what they do apart that makes their together so special.

MAN OF STEEL

Animals Always is the longest, most complex and most figurative sculpture of Albert Paley’s career. It features 100 tons of weathering Cor-ten steel and more than 600 elements, including trees, water and a Noah’s Ark of birds, beasts and fish. Among the 60 recognizable animals, including elephants, penguins and giraffes, is a tribute to his beloved dog who passed away shortly before the commission was completed. The 125 feet long, 32 feet tall and 10 feet wide sculpture was installed at the St. Louis Zoo in 2006. It is the largest sculpture at any public zoo in the United States and the second largest sculpture in St. Louis behind the Gateway Arch. What’s most amazing about this massive project is that the animal detail will be as thin as a quarter of an inch.


This marvel of massiveness was 25 years in the making. It began as a concept for the Central Park Zoo in New York, but bureaucratic red tape forced the project to the shelf. Two decades later, a Missouri philanthropist saw the drawings for Animals Always hanging in Paley’s Rochester studio. A million dollar donation later, the sculpture was given a new chance at life.

Paley invented a new system to make this monumental construction a reality. After first drawing each element of the sculpture separately, Paley then spent six painstaking months creating a complete, 1,300 piece scale model out of cardboard. The model and drawings were then converted into computer images. The computer in turn drove a torch that cut the steel plates to Paley’s exact specifications. Paley’s team began welding the sculpture together in preparation for the installation.

One of the predominant features is an archway in the middle of the sculpture that people will be able to walk through. “There is an important painting by Cezanne called The Large Bathers and there are all these trees that arch up. It was the inspiration for part of the design,” Paley says. And it’s a perfect fit for the Gateway City.

Albert Paley was born into a fairly poor family in Philadelphia during WWII. His father, who fought in Burma and China, later became a traveling salesman and eventually succumbed to alcoholism. When Albert was 15, his dad became an invalid with severe arthritis. It was up to Albert’s mother to raise him.

School was tough. Reading and writing were not up his alley. Paley simply saw the world differently. He loved nature and making models from kits. The Boy Scouts provided his most important, early learning experiences, nevertheless, Albert left school at 16 with bad grades and no idea on what should come next. He took a job in the art supply section of a local department store. There he met a student at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art who persuaded him to give art school a go. Coming from a family with no art background, it seemed like a long shot. He applied and was accepted on a probationary period. It would be one of the best moves of his life.

http://www.temple.edu/crafts/public_html/mjcc/local/history/i141.gif“Growing up, my whole value construct had to do with money,” Paley says. “When I went to art school – the first class of the first day was a design class, so they’re teaching you a study from white to black, all the different gray tones – it’s called value study. A photograph that had the most intense white and the blackest black was more valuable than something that was muted. So all of a sudden, I was able to experience enrichment and value outside of a monetary context and, for me, with my background, it was a total epiphany and it changed how I viewed things like the quality of a shadow. It was a freedom that your validity had to do with your ability to experience and perceive.”

Paley had found his calling. He majored in sculpture and quickly became an honor student. He took classes and worked on stone and wood carving projects from seven in the morning to midnight. Paley then cleaned the art studio each night until 2:30; it’s how he paid for his education. He worked weekends, too. “I used to regret that I had to sleep,” Paley says.


Along the way, Paley picked up the art of jewelry making. He chose goldsmithing for his master’s degree, teaching full-time as a grad assistant and doing metalwork until all hours of the night. Paley was angry that jewelry was considered a craft. It became his passion to change the world’s mind by elevating its status.

It was the late 1960’s, the height of America’s sexual revolution, and Paley embraced the idea of ornamentation. His designs were complex, created to move in harmony with the body. The jewelry was large and demanding but fit the body so perfectly, it turned the person and the metal into art. They weren’t fashion statements as much as they were announcements about the female form.

By 1970, Paley was considered the top jewelry maker in the field. After receiving a master’s degree in fine arts., he moved to Rochester, New York, where he took a job teaching goldsmithing at RIT. Paley quickly tired of the jewelry scene and its second-class connotation in the art world. He began to experiment with iron and steel, making tables, candlesticks, mirrors and planters. He loved the plasticity and immediacy of metalwork. Paley started reading and going to junkyards.

His big break came when the Smithsonian bought the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Recognizing America’s ironwork revival, it sent out a call to 30 artists asking them to submit designs for a new pair of internal gates. Paley jumped at the chance, though he had never done anything of this scale. His idea came to him at the last minute. He sketched the design and got to the post office five minutes before it closed. Paley barely made the deadline but won the contract. He was about to become famous.

Paley rented an industrial complex in Rochester and hired his first helper. They were 75% of the way finished with the portal gates when Paley had his first brush with death. A serious motorcycle accident left him with internal injuries. A nurse told him he was going to die. He grabbed a notepad and quickly sketched the final details on the gates. He told his assistant to make sure that he finished this project. All the assistant could do was cry.

Paley spent a month in the hospital but lived to tell about the ordeal. In typical fashion, he went back to work too early and fainted on the first day. More determined than ever, Paley finished the gates and drove them to D.C. himself. They won national awards. “If you look at the forms – the gate and the jewelry – they actually are very similar,” Paley says. “The design sensibilities are the same. The Smithsonian project allowed me to use my design sensibilities and interface that with architecture. It allowed me to break out.”

In 1977, Paley gave up jewelry completely. He stopped lecturing about it, sold his tools, retrieved all the jewelry he had for sale at various galleries and locked it away in a vault. “For 25 years, I didn’t even talk about it because I had to recreate myself,” Paley says. From this point forward, it was large scale iron work only.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, commissions for gates, railings, screens and columns poured in. But what really paid the bills was his functional art. Lamp stands, bookends, decorative furniture – Paley couldn’t make enough. He pushed the parameters of steel, brass and copper, turning metal into seemingly living, organic objects.

Then there is Paley’s work that is truly larger than life. In 1982, he completed his first work of public sculpture for Rochester’s Strong Museum. Five years later, he completed a grouping of four pylons at the Wortham Center for Performing Arts in Houston, Texas. It was the first time he colored his ironwork, adding a weightless quality to these massive pieces. The ribbon-like twists of metal became a signature of his work.

Paley’s monumental architectural commissions truly have a restless energy to them. Like his jewelry, these large scale sculptures command space yet blend in to the environment. The flowering, blossoming quality in his furniture is present in these towering, abstract sculptures. “As far as form, evolution and composition, there is a sensibility that follows throughout my career,” Paley says.

Among the notables: Passage (1995), at the Federal Building in Asheville, North Carolina, is a formed and fabricated weathering steel sculpture designed to act as a rite of passage. People can actually walk through it; the 65-foot Genesee Passage (1996) at Bausch and Lomb’s headquarters in New York; and The Sentinel (2003), at Rochester’s Institute of Technology, a 110-ton, 73-foot high sculpture of towering steel and bronze and the focal point of the university’s campus. It is the largest sculpture on any college campus in the United States.

Animals Always was the 56th major corporate or civic commission of Paley’s career. His artwork appears in Canada, England and at least 20 states, including several in California. His works have graced the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Paley’s visionary achievements in art have led to a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Architects, the AIA’s highest award to a non-architect and the first given to a sculptor. Paley holds an Endowed Chair at the Rochester Institute of Technology and has 15 full-time employees. He doesn’t care about his legacy, just his art. “I think the whole thing is to live your life with integrity. So, if I’m going to build something, I’m going to build it to last. I put three to four times more effort into designing the piece so it will last, so the piece has integrity and authority about it.”


IN LIVING COLOR

Every year, Frances Paley makes an exodus to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. It is one of her favorite places to photograph. The French love to adorn their cemeteries with beautiful sculpture, and Frances loves to capture the spirit – almost snatching it before it crosses over to the spirit world. Taking the photograph is just the beginning, later she will add color. This is done with simplicity and a delicate touch, giving the image new life and an almost ethereal quality. Frances doesn’t know what color she will add before she begins working with a certain image. It’s always a bit of a surprise – for her and the viewer.

Taxidermy museums are another one of Frances’ favorite places to photograph. Stuffed, dead animals may not sound so magical, but somehow Frances manages to make them beautiful. Even a dead pelican washed up on the beach can be transformed. Color is the key. “I’ve been photographing for years, but only showing for the last few because what I saw in my mind, I could never do. With the computer I found a way to make them look like I wanted. I’m finally getting them (the photographs) the way I’ve seen them for 25 to 30 years. Color is the only thing I change. I never change the composition of the photograph. No cropping or adding. Sometimes it looks like layers, but it’s not. For me, I don’t want to change anything because the magic of it is that at one particular moment in time, absolutely accurately, that’s what existed there. The color brings the animal back to life which is what I love.”

Her unique take on photography is the latest chapter in a career as multidimensional as the woman herself. She did not take a linear approach to her art development, although she says in the big picture it all makes sense. Starting at the beginning, she worked in the rough-and-tumble world of metal, aluminum, to be more specific. She designed jewelry and sculpture, but was mostly interested in form. To learn metal machining technology, she went to classes and got a certificate in metalwork from New York State. With that certificate she could have been a welder but that was never part of the plan. “Having lived with little or no money for so long, I was pragmatic,” she laughs, “RIT is a very expensive school. I didn’t want to waste valuable school time learning the machines. So I got my certificate and then I could spend university time on making my art.” And she did. She earned a master’s degree of fine arts from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and before long she was on the university staff.

“It was an exhilarating time. I had a teenage daughter, I was creating, I was teaching, I worked in administration, managing more than 100 programs. I was busy.” Her art was changing, too. She was getting into intricate, large-scale, airbrushed watercolor and pen and ink drawings. The term wasn’t in fashion yet, but Frances was the queen of multi-tasking. Perhaps, in hindsight, she was a little too busy. A jam-packed schedule left her little time to take stock of her life, but that was about to change.

Throughout this period, Frances was involved in some serious Zen training and in the mid-1980’s, she left the university to focus on her training full-time. For the first time in her life, Frances had time to re-evaluate. “I became very interested in consciousness – more than even art, because art is interesting but it’s only a manifestation of what’s in consciousness. Consciousness is the ground that everything comes out of. That became my main focus and I went back and got a degree.” Yeah, that would be master’s degree number two, this one in psychotherapy. Frances then went on to work with the clients no one else wanted – parents of murdered children. “You couldn’t cure them. You just had to be there with them as they went through whatever they were going through. The Zen training really helped.” It was difficult and gut-wrenching work, but Frances was good at it and might still be doing it if not for a back injury that made it impossible for her to sit for long periods of time.

She had to give up private practice but art helped fill the void. She got back to her photography and discovered the technology to finally allow her to bring the vision of her photograph to reality. Getting to this point had been a long and winding journey, but Frances says every turn was necessary. Even the psychotherapy added an emotional empathy that translates to her photography. Her work is starting to get noticed – she has a show coming up this summer in Peru. Some have called her an overnight success. She laughs, “Yeah, an overnight success 30 years in the making.”

DEETJEN’S & DESTINY

In 1974, these two independent artists were on a collision course with destiny. He was the established one, the top jewelry maker in the world and a professor at RIT on a West Coast lecture tour. She was still trying to figure it all out, a single mother working on her undergraduate degree at San Diego State. Art was not the initial attraction. “If anything, it would have been the opposite. I mean, he was the top person in his field,” Frances says. She was fascinated by Albert the artist, but found herself more intrigued by Albert the man. He was smitten, too.

Within a year, she had finished her degree and packed up her life and moved to Rochester. Her daughter was a sweet, eleven-year-old kid. Parenthood would be new for Albert; at the time he thought it would be a piece of cake. The teenage years proved him wrong, but it was a challenge they tackled together. Their lives fell together in a comfortable rhythm – still independent, going down different artistic paths but sharing a harmonious vision. “We would be driving along and both see the same thing, it’s very strange. But if we look out the window – I’ll say, ‘Look at the color at the end of that branch,’ and he’ll say, ‘I was just going to say that.’ So we tend to see the same things even though our work is very different.”

All they ever did was work, but they didn’t have money to show for it, so they improvised. When it came to decorating their house they had to get creative. “One of the things we used to collect – and we had a whole wall filled with them – shattered glass. When a car window breaks, you know how it shatters and stays together in different shapes, we had a wall of that,” Frances says. “Better than that,” Albert interrupts, “In Rochester it snows all the time. They salt the roads and salt is highly corrosive. So, your exhaust system would only last three years. Mufflers would fall off cars and then cars would roll over them and flatten them out. These things were so beautiful; it was so unbelievable. So we had a whole wall of tainted rust shapes.”

http://www.deetjens.com/images/2.07/Bar-Room-Deetjens.jpgThey lived and worked in Rochester, never really taking a vacation. They did, however, travel for work and one day they stumbled upon paradise. It was the early-1980’s and the Paleys were in Los Angeles for a show. A friend suggested they drive up Highway One – they took the advice. “It was a rainy Saturday night,” Albert says. “We were exhausted, tired and hungry and we stopped at Deetjen’s (Big Sur Inn). I opened the door and it was like walking into another world. It was magical.” Frances adds, “We couldn’t believe it. It was like an epiphany – something like this still exists. It’s really the most romantic place – beyond wonderful.”

From that point on, they found time for vacations – even if it was just for a couple days to get a Central Coast fix. Like so many people who’ve had the Big Sur experience, they can’t get it out of their blood. “We live in a truly wonderful place in Rochester,” Frances says. “It’s exquisite. But here, dozens of times a day, Albert and I both say, ‘It’s beautiful.’ We are dumbstruck by the physical beauty. The land and the trees – it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen. We travel a lot and I don’t think there is any place this beautiful.” So now, it’s more than a vacation – they split their time between East Coast and West Coast. They rent a home near Carmel River Beach and Albert has warehouse space in Sand City.

They are complex people. The simplest things are never simple for them. A walk on the beach becomes a treasure hunt for things they can incorporate into their work. For him, it’s a wave beaten piece of driftwood or a discarded piece of purple plastic from a child’s pail. Neither was bigger than a few inches, most people would walk on by and never notice them. But to Albert, “I think it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Shapes that, to an artist’s mind, bring natural context to his work.

For Frances it’s a dead bird. But again, it’s not that simple. She sees a pelican with a spirit that’s still there. She photographs it, colorizes it and gives it new life. The next day, the dead pelican is gone. The tide has washed it away. But Frances’s pelican lives on. It’s been shown in Florida, Chicago and New York and now sits propped up against a wall in their Carmel home.

Just a few years ago, the Paleys were forced to deal with their own mortality – it was Albert’s second brush with death. While working on one of his large-scale sculptures, a propane explosion put him in intensive care for two weeks on life support. None of the doctors were sure whether he would make it. Albert spent a month in the burn unit with Frances at his side throughout. Slowly, he improved but would carry the scars of that day for the rest of his life.

His first project after the accident was in the tiny town of Perry, Iowa. The owner of the Hotel Patee commissioned a piece, ironically titled Reconfiguration. She wanted to honor the town’s rural heritage. So Albert gathered metal from old tractors and farm machinery and in the process got to know the people of Perry. The metal was forged in his Rochester studio but because of his weakened condition he needed help putting the piece together. Townspeople stepped up and actually installed the piece and, along the way, something remarkable happened. “There was an amazing transformation that happened in Perry. Not just on our end. The people were very pragmatic, very fundamental and here’s this New York artist telling them what to do. There was a whole transformation that happened in the community. At first they were skeptical, very standoff-ish. Toward the end, they were bringing their children in and showing them the piece. The way art engaged the community was absolutely unbelievable.”

For the Paleys, it was medicine they couldn’t buy. Emotionally and physically, they began to heal as well. “Since the time of the accident until we went to Perry in October – the accident was in July – I didn’t cry,” Frances says. “I didn’t cry until October. It was an emotional time.” They had cheated death and with the help of some unlikely heroes in Middle America, they were reminded of what life is really about.

Albert and Frances Paley have an enviable relationship. Over 30 years together, they have built a life without ever losing their own independence – artistically or otherwise. Their intellectual banter is still sharp and intense, but always respectful. Artistically, Albert is one of the most renowned sculptors in the world and Frances is enjoying the new and growing appreciation for her unique photography. When Albert left jewelry making behind 27 years ago, he wouldn’t even talk about it. But lately, he seems to appreciate its place in the process. In fact, Frances wears one of his creations every day. “It was actually made for a man in New York,” Frances explains. “Just about two years ago he was selling off his collection and we bought it back. Albert, because of his accident, can’t really wear it. But look we have the same size hands. So I wear it and he gets to see it everyday and he loves it. It’s very sentimental.” One ring. Two lives. Full circle.

Written by: Ben Bamsey & Erin Clark

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