Paula Whaley's poetry flows from her hands

"I don't know, sister,

what I'm saying,

nor do no man,

if he don't be praying.

I know that love is the only answer

and the tight-rope lover

the only dancer. …

—From the poem "Some Days (for Paula)" by James Baldwin

The tightrope lover was 40 years old in 1983 when Baldwin published a book containing this prescient verse. The author hoped that "Some Days" would help his younger sister steady her nerves and find her footing as she inched along the thin path to safety.

But when Baldwin died of stomach cancer four years later, Paula Whaley very nearly lost her balance.

"Jimmy's death devastated me," Whaley says of the pioneering author who chronicled the African-American experience.

"I was in bad shape, but I didn't realize it. I had lost a lot of weight and I looked like someone with cancer or AIDS. A young sculptor who I didn't know came up to me one day and said, 'You're in deep trouble. If you want to live, put your hands in some clay.'

"I'm usually not an obedient person. But for some reason, I said, 'OK.' "

She paused and sat quietly for a moment in her Charles North studio before looking up. At 71, she has delicate bones that belie her inner steel and large, expressive eyes, the better for looking inward.

"Art can heal," she says. "It's been that way for me."

In the quarter-century since her brother's death, Whaley has become as eloquent with Italian clay and surgical gauze as her brother was with words. About two dozen of her soft sculptures are part of "Locally Sourced," a group show at the Maryland Institute College of Art featuring five artists active in the Station North arts district.

The exhibit includes a floor-to-ceiling mural by the street artist known as Nether (who was born Justin Nethercut); a plywood map that artist Jason Hoylman carved with the routes of 27 people as they traversed local streets, and a 24-minute looping video put together by Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick of their interviews with key neighborhood figures.

"We're looking at how artists interact with their neighbors and how those exchanges help a community thrive," says Melani Douglass, one of the 10 students in MICA's curatorial practices program who put together the show.

The curators were intrigued with the meditative nature of Whaley's doll sculptures and her unconventional career path. Whaley doesn't solicit attention from the art world. She doesn't enter contests or exhibit at art fairs or write grant proposals. Instead, customers seek her out.

"Paula's the inviter-in, the one who calls people to her," student curator Emily Russell says.

"She has a storefront gallery with a window in front of her house that showcases work by other local artists, and it brings in passers-by. When people visit Paula's studio, that's when they meet her and see her dolls."

Whaley often says that people either love her work or hate it. Some viewers are spooked by her sculptures. Possibly, that's because her creations are at odds with our shared cultural experience of dolls designed to resemble idealized infants inhabiting a storybook world.

In contrast, Whaley's stylized figures have twisted, elongated limbs, oversized mouths that aren't smiling and enormous, closed eyes. Their heads aren't always where they should be. Sometimes Whaley creates a tiny head and plunges it between the doll's shoulders and directly over the heart. Maybe there's no head at all. Maybe, several heads peer out at the viewer from unexpected places. Another doll carries her head in her hands.

In the 2004 book, "Black Dolls: Proud, Bold & Beautiful," author Nayda Rondon wrote that Whaley's "thought-provoking spiritual characters — frequently standing forty inches tall — have faces marked with life's often tragic and harsh passing, yet they also possess broad shoulders on which to bear their burdens."

Other viewers see past the pain to the promise of healing. Many doll bodies are made from surgical gauze used to bind wounds. Others incorporate such natural forms as palm leaves and moss, or rope and burlap that the artist paints a rich red, a deep blue-violet shot through with gold or a cloud-like, transparent white.

The sculptures have names such as "Wisdom" and "Tranquillity." In each, the artist incorporates a brass Gye Nyame — a Ghanaian symbol that signifies the supremacy of God. The amulets are tiny. You have to look hard to find the gold circle wrapped around a strand of hair or buried in a fold of cloth. Whaley has even been known to enclose the symbol inside a doll's body. But it's always there.

"When you walk into Paula's studio, she almost always has incense burning or lemon grass oil so you're immediately hit with this lovely uplifting smell," Russell says. "And then you're surrounded by all these beautiful dolls that are kind of praying all around you."

The MICA curators wanted Whaley's installation to resemble her studio, so they painted one wall purple and hung a net on it. There's a fireplace with two candles and an antique chest. Whaley's dolls sit on pieces of driftwood or on carved wooden stools as they do in her studio.

The artist first saw the completed installation this week, on the morning before the show opened. "My God," Whaley said. She looked both honored and utterly terrified.

Whaley was born July 29, 1943, a few hours after her father, the preacher David Baldwin, died of tuberculosis.

Jimmy, then 19, took over the job of helping his mother care for his eight younger brothers and sisters. He and Paula became extremely close. It was James who named the infant after vetoing his aunt's suggestion that she be called "Mercy." In 1953, when Baldwin published his acclaimed first novel, "Go Tell It On the Mountain," he dedicated it to the then-10-year-old Paula Maria.

"He was like a father to me," Whaley says. "He helped raise me."

James took Paula to her first opening night on Broadway, and later to Europe, where he agonized over how much to protect her and how much to let her try the high wire.

She recently began a story about her brother Jimmy — told a group of seniors she was leading in a doll-making workshop — by saying, "I had a brother." Then she corrected herself: "I have a brother."

She says that the clay faces for her dolls are modeled on people who have served as her spiritual guides, primarily her mother and her aunt.

It's odd, then, that none of the dolls have Jimmy's face. Perhaps, a visitor speculates, Whaley doesn't always make a clear separation between herself and her famous sibling.

The artist looks down, purses her lips and replies:

"When you've had loss like that, a part of you leaves the planet with that person. You speak a certain language, and there are things between you that no one else knows."

As a little girl, Paula made elaborate paper dolls and designed their clothes. Jimmy was the first to realize that her creations were more than just child's play.

"He saw very early that I was an artist," Whaley says. "He said something that I didn't understand until much later in life: 'You're the youngest child, but you're also the oldest.' He wrote me letters saying, 'One day we'll do shows together.'"

After her brother's death, Whaley reluctantly put that thought aside. Then, a few months ago, she walked into MICA and found herself staring at her brother's face.

"I definitely did not see this coming," she says.

The gallery leads directly into Nancy's cafe, which is run by Kevin Brown, founder of the James Baldwin Literary Society. One wall contains seven portraits of the author drawn by local art students. From their perch, those portraits appear to have an unobstructed view of Whaley's dolls.

The realization made the tightrope lover's heart leap.

"Jimmy," Whaley says, "always kept his promises."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"Locally Sourced" runs through Sept. 21 at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Fred Lazarus IV Center at 131 W. North Ave. Free. Information: 410-669-9200 or mica.edu.

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