It was a sweltering afternoon in late summer when I arrived at Murphy Rail Studios in Southwest Atlanta. As I drove through the parking lot and around the corner a spacious workshop came into view. Two large garage doors were pulled up to reveal a number of metal sculptures positioned throughout the space. Piles of car parts and miscellaneous metal sat along one end of the studio, just waiting to be brought to life. This is the studio of Cuban artist Wilay Méndez Páez.
Páez grew up in Candelaria, Cuba, a town located just west of Havana. For the past three years he has been living and working in Atlanta as an artist-in-residence with Clark Atlanta University. While the majority of his works on display are sculptures, he does also dabble in photography, illustration, and painting. Páez is the inaugural fellow of the Workshop, a multi-year Clark Atlanta University Art Museum initiative that aims to provide resources, such as his studio space, as well as highlight the fundamental steps of artistic process from conception to completion.
Despite a language barrier that occasionally left us both searching for the right words throughout our conversation, Páez’s warm and jovial nature was evident from the start. He is passionate about art, but more than that he is passionate about the commonalities that unite people from all walks of life. His works reflect that message, with many of them representing unity through the literal combination of disparate objects and parts that are fused together.
When you look closely, there are some other elements that also serve to unite his work and connect them with his Afro-Cuban roots, such as the prevalence of arrow symbols. And while some pieces are obviously figural, others seem more akin to a skyline or amorphous, organic shapes. Páez is currently working on an ambitious undertaking to create 365 oversized metal faces. He begins each sculpture with conceptual sketches which he keeps stacked in portfolios at his studio and in his home.
“I have made sculptures since I was a kid but I took the art seriously when I was 17 years old or so,” said Páez. “Every time I build something as a sculpture, because my father was a mechanic and my grandfather was a carpenter and car fabricator. That’s how I found the metal for my sculptures. And that was necessary for me, I didn’t have money, so I found my materials at the junkyard to build my work. When I was 19 years old I started to work with metal.”
Following his first solo exhibition at 23 years old, Páez started to explore the connections between people and brought those ideas into his works. He would watch as people passed each other on the street and thought about the ways in which their personal experiences intersect. As he explained it to me he gestured with his arms in large circles indicating the cycles of life from birth to death, the similarity of individual daily routines shared between people who had never met, the natural order of things, and how he started to see where those circles overlapped. “I made something work in my art in circularity. It’s a cycle every day, we take a cycle. We wake up, we make our breakfast, we make lunch, we make dinner, and we go to sleep. We meet with other people, and we do the same thing: going to work, preparing something, it’s all a circle.”
Páez’s work is raw, composed of sharp metal that he welds together to tell a complex and often gentle story about humanity and what it means to be alive. Molten metal and sparks, those are his great unifiers. He sees potential in rusted out car bumpers, bicycle wheels, and sheets of tin. “I don’t have many tools, I use the grinder, hammer, metal cutting, and welding machine. And I can make magical things.” He likes that his sculptures have different impacts when viewed up close and far away, in solitude or within a collection, and from every different angle.
By transforming forgotten and discarded scraps into meaningful sculptures he hopes to bring attention to the connection – and disconnection – of human existence. It is so easy to exist in conflict with other people and see only the differences, but Páez feels it is important to remember that despite war, disagreement, and strife, we are far more alike than we are different. After all, simply to exist at the same time on the same planet with each other is a great serendipity.
“This connection translates to other dimensions,” explained Páez, gesturing at the sculptures that surround him. “If you are going to stand in the street and protest, you are in connection with other people who are also protesting. My work is about the connection. We are together in the world. If we think about other people and the connection that we have with other people, we could be better in the future. I do not know what will happen in the future, but this is my concept.”
Today, Páez lives with his wife, a Spanish professor at Spelman University, and their infant son in Mableton. While circumstances in Cuba make traveling back home difficult, he does maintain a studio presence there and hopes to return for a visit before the end of the year. You may have seen his works on display at The Atlanta Contemporary, Clark Atlanta University Museum, and Mason Fine Art, and he hopes to one day see his work installed on the Atlanta Beltline.