Paula Whaley, age 77, is something of a late bloomer. The Baltimore-based sculptor and doll-maker hasn’t always identified as an artist and even struggled to envision life as an artist while she worked in fashion. But in 1987, she felt called to work with clay as a way of healing after the death of her older brother, writer, and activist James Baldwin. Whaley was extremely close with “Jimmy,” who encouraged her early on to make art and whose influence continues to shape her work and life. Today, Whaley is best known for her mixed-media doll sculptures, no two exactly alike. Formed of clay, wood, metal, fabric, and other materials, the closed-eye figures don intricate, textured garments and offer deep, expressive gestures, appearing at once at rest and in motion. As embodiments of familial and ancestral memory, the pieces are emblematic of Whaley’s own spiritual connection to those who have come before her. Here, Whaley opens up about coming into her own as an artist, what gives her hope for today—and tomorrow—and what she wants to leave behind.
CARLY OLSON: I know that you and your brother, Jimmy, were quite close. What did you learn from him that sticks with you today?
PAULA WHALEY: It’s about fear. Fear can paralyze you, and he always used to say, “Work on getting through, or over, your fear. When something is presented to you that you want, usually it’s worth risking it all.” I will be working on this forever. He believed in me in ways I didn’t see. He kept saying, “I see you as an artist.” I never saw that. I want to inspire because that's what he gave me...and anybody he was around. You could become hopeful if you had doubts. You could somehow get courage and move forward.
CO: Are you hopeful right now?
PW: I’m kind of back and forth, in and out, but it’s interesting: Even with the pandemic and in the midst of all this chaos and horror, I still am hopeful. I feel that things will never be the same again. It's a complete shift, and I think the younger people will be able to make that leap. You have to have a spiritual base. I’ve watched others come through things because they had something to fall back on. At some point, it’s not all about you.
CO: How do you connect with God? Do you pray?
PW: Oh, yes, I meditate and I pray every day. It’s the first thing I do, and that’s what my mother did. It was a ritual. I laugh sometimes because it’s amazing...the things that we didn’t think we would do that we may have watched our parents do. But every day I do get up, I meditate, and I'm thankful for the gifts that I have been given. And I really spend a lot of time—because of the work that I’m doing and want to continue—thanking my ancestors. I literally pray to my ancestors.
CO: You told me that you also see your ancestors, sometimes, right?
PW: Yes. My father’s sister at some point lived with us. I was close to her, and she couldn't hear. We lived in a railroad tenement. She and I would be in the back of the apartment, and when people knocked, I would have to lead her to the door. She comes to me a lot because of the time going up and down this hall. It may sound crazy, but sometimes I feel that I get more in meditation when I call on my ancestors than I would get from someone here in the physical.
CO: I often hear people say that at the end of the day, all you have is yourself. What you're saying is the opposite of that.
PW: No, no, no, no—I would never say all I have is myself. That would bother me or scare me, truthfully. That’s why when I'm talking to young people, I always say it’s about you and your art, but it’s also bigger than that. You need something other than yourself to connect with.
CO: Has this year of working from home helped you remain connected to where you should be?
PW: Definitely. It’s interesting about this pandemic. It’s all terrible and horrible, but I also think it’s a wake-up call. And I think that for some of us, I’m probably one of them, you’re getting another chance to work on getting where you may want to be. I’m really working toward my transition. I’m working on that. I’m trying to get right for that.
CO: When you say transition, are you talking about death? How do you prepare? What do you want to leave behind?
PW: Uh-huh! Just a couple of weeks ago I started labeling certain things that people have given to me and certain things that I want to be buried with me. But what I want to leave behind, and what I am leaving behind, is mainly the work that I've done. I hope that I will continue to inspire and give people a certain kind of peace. For me, it’s about energy. And I want to have inspired the young people that I have been involved with.
CO: What self-work do you think is worthwhile? What should we let go of?
PW: It’s interesting that you use the phrase letting go. It’s been very interesting in this pandemic to watch people who have worked all their lives and acquired incredible things but they cannot even stay in their homes. So who and what was it about? Was it for you, really? Because if it was for you...then you would be able to live with it. I think wherever you are, it should be your sanctuary. It should be a place that you can go to and be alone and be okay and let it be well with your soul.
CO: What do you enjoy about your age?
PW: I breathe differently. It’s a kind of freedom—even sometimes feeling carefree. Sometimes a childlike feeling or spirit comes back. It’s like I’m able to look or see or feel the child in me. I feel lighter. ✦
Paula Whaley was interviewed and photographed for Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The oral history series is running across Hearst magazine, newspaper, and television websites throughout 2021. Go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for the whole portfolio.
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Consider donating to the National Association of Black Journalists. You can direct your dollars to scholarships and fellowships that support the educational and professional development of aspiring young journalists.
Also, support The National Caucus & Center on Black Aging. Dedicated to improving the quality of life of older African-Americans, NCCBA’s educational programs arm them with the tools they need to advocate for themselves.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of VERANDA. Photography by Nate Palmer; written by Carly Olson.
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