The Fine Art of Working With Metal

Fabtech’s Paley-James project aims to honor those who work with metal.

At first blush, Jesse James and Albert Paley don’t seem to be the kind of guys you would observe having coffee together at a local diner or hanging out together in general.

Most of us know of James, the tattooed craftsman of motorcycles who gained television fame with his West Coast Choppers shop and “Monster Garage” show. He comes off as a badass, with a toughness that was clearly on display on his show, but this image was at odds with that of the guy who was married to movie star Sandra Bullock for a time several years ago. We also saw him on “The Apprentice,” right before the now-President fired him.

We don’t know that much about Paley, one of the top metal sculptors alive. He has a studio in Rochester, New York, and is the first metal sculptor to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Architects, its highest award for a non-architect. His works are commissioned by public entities and private corporations, and he has created more than 50 site-specific works. His sculptures can be found in more than 30 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Toledo Museum of Art, and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British Museum.

When we saw that the organizers of this year’s Fabtech show had hired James and Paley to work on a unique sculpture project together, we were a little bit intrigued.

The backstory is this: The Fabtech folks asked James and Paley to each start a sculpture on their own, without telling the other the subject. At the halfway point of the projects, they would switch sculptures and each would finish the other’s piece of art.

The completed sculptures will be revealed on November 6, at Fabtech in Chicago. The entire process also has been filmed and the resulting documentary will air on PBS stations nationwide. The sculptures themselves will be auctioned off, with proceeds going back to the five Fabtech sponsors that funded the project, including the Chemical Coaters Association International, to support educational opportunities for careers in metalworking trades.

While James and Paley may look different (the latter sports a long ponytail), Paley says there is a common bond between them: working with metal. They both love to take the raw material and work it in their hands, shaping and bending pieces until they almost come alive and take on a character of their own. Paley’s works hang in museums and in town squares, while James’ work eventually runs on highways and byways and are just as much art as anything else made from metal.

“Both Jesse and I have worked several decades with metal and metal technology,” Paley says. “What I do and what he does is incredibly sophisticated. In the past, people have approached me to collaborate, but I never thought it was a situation that was viable. What we have established about building these two sculptures is a unique opportunity.”

Like Paley, James often starts with a blank canvas when he designs a bike, usually without a pre-conceived notion of what it will look like when he is done forming and welding the metal. It is only when he is finished that he knows what he has made.

“When two craftsmen that truly love metal can come together in an organic way and create, expect something amazing to happen,” James said when the project was announced. “My biggest hope for this project is to inspire people and let them know that nothing is impossible. As long as you are willing to work hard and never quit.”

In the end, this project should be something that anyone attending Fabtech will love and appreciate. Nearly every one of the attendees—metal formers, fabricators, welders and finishers—will identify with the two craftsmen and their desire to turn raw material into something to be appreciated by its fit and finish.

That is what drove James to work with Paley on the project, kindred spirits creating something that didn’t exist before.

“You do these big giant sculptures and I build motorcycles, but it’s like we have the exact same religion,” James said when he first met Paley.

This unique project of two craftsmen each beginning a sculpture and then shipping it off to someone else to finish will be curious to watch. 

James agrees that this project is indeed rare, but after meeting his counterpart and getting to know him, he is stoked by what the project will unveil about each of them.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for me personally just to be able to work with you and do something,” he told Paley when they met. “You know, it’s like someone that I’ve looked up to and admired for so long, and then now we get to put hands on metal together. That’s pretty special.”