Most artists start small and move on to bigger things, but few have followed that career path as literally as Albert Paley has. He went from crafting delicate gold jewelry in the 1960s and early ’70s to his present pursuit of forging iron gates, sculptures, and other massive works in a 20,000-square-foot work space in Rochester, N.Y., that is equipped with a 30-foot-tall bridge crane. His largest commission, a 130-foot-long, 36-foot-high, 200-ton-plus sculpture for the entrance to the St. Louis Zoo, titled Animals Always, will be installed this summer.
You could say that Paley, who has been a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology for the last 37 years and an artist-in-residence for 22, entered the metal-sculpting realm through portal gates—a pair that he made in 1974 for the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. The museum houses a large collection of American crafts and decorative arts from this century and the previous two. Although Paley had never before fashioned a gate, the Smithsonian invited him to compete against 14 other artists for the commission on the strength of his jewelry, metal sculptures, and other artworks. His winning entry—a pair of steel, brass, bronze, and copper creations that together stand 7.5 feet tall by 6 feet wide—has a light, almost ethereal appearance that belies the material from which it was constructed. “I wanted the gates to show a sense of refinement and sophistication, so there’s a lot of sophisticated metalwork, refined details, and rich metals,” he says. “I wanted to evoke a sense of quality, and I was concerned with making manifest what [the Renwick Gallery] is about.”
The Smithsonian project allowed Paley to retire his goldsmith’s bench (he made his last piece of jewelry in 1977) and concentrate on creating large metal sculptures as well as gates commissioned by architects and other clients. Paley estimates that he has made 40 since 1974, and that they constitute about 20 percent of his artistic output; he has six gates in progress at his studio.
When he designs a set of gates, each of which is unique and can range in price from $250,000 to $700,000, Paley considers how its appearance will complement the structure for which it will stand sentry and the landscape where it will be installed. “The gates are the first thing you see when you enter a private home and the last thing you see when you leave. They set the stage, as it were, and they should make a statement,” he says. “They should reflect the ambience and the sensibility of the home.”
In his designs, Paley likes to add forms that appear to be abstract but are actually visual references that his clients certainly can recognize. He included this type of element on a set of 24-foot-wide, 12-foot-high, rust-colored steel entrance gates that he made in 2004. The gates were installed at the entrance of a property in upstate New York that is dominated by a huge sycamore tree with a split trunk. “I could see how the owners loved the tree, so I put it in,” Paley says, explaining how he forged two of the gate’s decorative forms in the shape of branching limbs. “The average person will interpret it as they will, but to the client, it has meaning.”
Paley Studios Ltd., 585.232.5260, www.albertpaley.com