Less than a minute into my scheduled interview with world-renowned sculptor Albert Paley, we knew we had a problem. I wanted to talk about how he played as a child, but Paley wanted to know what I meant by play. And just like that he became the interviewer and I was the one reaching for answers. It’s a great question. I gave the answer most people interested in play can agree with: play is self-initiated, self-regulated, and self-limited. Play has certain characteristics and we know what play is not. The problem is, play is complex and difficult to define.
Complex ideas are Paley’s passion and the inspiration for his work. Internationally acclaimed for his ability to meld emotion and hot steel into awe-inspiring sculptures, Paley’s work earned him the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Architects. “Each project forces me to explore questions I might not otherwise encounter,” Paley explained. “Even though I deal in tangible materials, the work is essentially introspective and emotional, expressing feelings such as intimacy or solemnity.”
I asked what his experiences were growing up in Philadelphia. “I grew up pre-TV, with no toys that I remember,” Paley told me. “I was a kid in a neighborhood packed with other kids. We left the house early and came back when we were told to, or when we were ready. We played tag in the streets and climbed in a cemetery. Some of it was dangerous. We climbed the rain spouts that ran along the roofs!”
Often Paley played solo, and he learned early to follow his own path. “I loved to wander, following my curiosity, to see what I could find. Being on my own helped me develop a strong sense of individualism and identity. Cigars were popular back then and, when I wandered, I collected the cigar bands and matchbook covers I found by the curb. The art on them sparked my imagination and introduced me to amazingly exotic images that showed me there was a fascinating world beyond my neighborhood.”
Wandering also fueled Paley’s growing fascination with the physical world. “I spent a lot of time building things as a kid, crazy things like boats and cars, from whatever I could find. The physicality of transforming materials was all around me. I had one uncle that was a machinist, another was a plumber. My mother patched pants with whatever material was handy. So as kids we learned to make things from materials we had available and to repair them when needed. To me the physical world is reality. Gravity is incredibly amazing. You can’t see it. You can only experience it through physicality, by transforming an idea into something that can be touched.”
Gravity is an important playmate. Tossing a ball in the air, we know it will come down. Jumping off a diving board, we know we’ll land in the pool. But Paley wants us to see gravity at work. He mischievously dangled steel gears, wheels, and machinery from dizzying heights in Reconfiguration, the gates to the Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa. In Synergy, sinuous arms reach, unsupported, across the highway marking the entrance to Philadelphia. Paley plays with steel and gravity as a means of exciting our sensibilities.
School proved, however, unable to match the allure of following his curiosity. “I hated school,” Paley says. “It ripped me away from everything I loved. It ripped me away from family. I couldn’t play outside or wander. I couldn’t be with friends. I had to experience things I didn’t like and I wasn’t interested in. I did what I had to do to get by. I wasn’t very social. Mostly I did things on my own.”
Art classes at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art changed Paley’s academic experience. “I found art school to be totally enriching and liberating. The beauty and richness of color inspired me. I could experience things I wanted to experience. And I decided I wanted to follow that path.”
Today, at 68, Paley still pursues that path relentlessly. “I’m fortunate because I have always been able to create my own reality, to work outside of a regimented system. The normal work week/weekend split doesn’t exist for me. I am in my studio every day.”
Regarding the troublesome question of what play is, Paley says “play is enjoyment, enrichment, functioning outside of a system, being free to be yourself, being introspective. Creativity is the foundation of play. It can be agonizing and demoralizing but it can also be rewarding and enriching. My work is my creativity and creativity is part of the human condition. There is never a time when I am not working.” I wonder if this might also mean there is never a time when he is not playing.