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Now let's talk about an artist who works in iron and steel. His creations adorn Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chattanooga, Rochester - but his name, Albert Paley, is little-known. Albert Paley is an American sculptor - an iron-smith whose gates, archways and freestanding sculptures are eye-catching landmarks. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on the exhibition "American Metal: The Art Of Albert Paley" on view at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Growing up in Philadelphia in the '40s, Albert Paley played with blocks, Legos and loved wandering the streets scavenging stuff.

ALBERT PALEY: You know, picking up pebbles that I thought were interesting or twigs or that type of thing - for me, as a little kid, finding bottle caps in the street or matchbook covers or cigar bands. And the cigar band might have a camel on it or a palm tree or an Indianhead.

STAMBERG: Now 70, Paley has moved from pebbles to monumental gates.

PALEY: They really are an announcement. It signifies - they are a work of art.

STAMBERG: Eric Turner is curator of the Paley show.

PALEY: This is what's really so important about Albert Paley's work - one of the aspects. He transforms something from a merely utilitarian function into something much, much more.

STAMBERG: More interesting - arresting. In 1972, Albert Paley beat out 30 entries to win a design competition for gates - when they're fancy they're called portholes - for the bookstore at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery. They are gorgeous - made of brass, steel, bronze and copper, they're very Art Nouveau - the way they swirl and flow like shiny sinuous vines. A mean critic once described Art Nouveau as vermicelli and delirium. But that was in the 1890s. When Paley began in the 1960s, there was an Art Nouveau revival underway. He started off as a jeweler.

PALEY: The discipline of the goldsmith I found was very intriguing - the sense of quality, the sense of refinement, as far as developing the object. But then also conceptually, I mean, what does jewelry do to the individual? How does it manifest their ego or their presence? This is the type of work that I was doing at that time.

STAMBERG: Big pieces in silver and gold.

PALEY: I didn't design it for a lapel or whatever.

STAMBERG: Paley's pins and pendants and necklaces would look great on Amazon women - no cute little Tiffany broaches.

PALEY: No, but remember this was done in the late '60s and the feminist movement had started. This is not for a meek demure woman. This is somebody that has a sense of self, a sense of bearing. There's a real presence. You wear something like this in public, people are going to look at you.

STAMBERG: So from jewelry to gates for a bookstore, to a massive procession of animals, a gateway at the St. Louis Zoo - you can see it and other works at npr.org - also portals at the New York State Senate in Albany and a gate at the National Cathedral in Washington. The swirls continue, but there are also spiky, forbidding shapes - like solid takes on barbed wire - the steelworker just loves forging.

PALEY: You heat a piece of metal up, you hit it, it forms, it develops a line in space that has continuity or whatever. When I'm working on it, I'm experiencing movement. So it's almost like if this were heated up again, it would continue to move.

STAMBERG: Some of his works are monumental - big abstract geometric street sculptures - very modern. But curator Eric Turner - he's from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London - says Paley puts history into the modern metal he forges.

ERIC TURNER: What is old-fashioned about it is in fact actually the meticulous standards of craftsmanship.

STAMBERG: The big sculptures and gates are as carefully finished as the pins and necklaces - jewel like in their precision. Here's something else about the gates, portals, entryways, whatever - here's Paley.

PALEY: You go outside to inside - you go from light to dark - there's a passage of time. If there's anything that's a symbolic element in architecture, it's a portal or an archway.

STAMBERG: Paley's portals frame transitions. They elevate an otherwise routine path through the day. His steelworks are on view until late September at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington - ornaments to modern life. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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