Twelve years ago, at age 58, sculptor and traditional doll maker Paula Whaley purchased a property near the intersection of North Charles and 21st streets. Her neighbors at the time consisted of a methadone clinic and boarded up houses.
"Because I was from Harlem and I had gone through the '50s with the whole heroin epidemic … this didn't bother me," said Whaley in a rare interview with the AFRO.
More than her Harlem upbringing, however, it was something she learned from her brother, the late literary icon James Baldwin, which led to the purchase of what is now her home and studio – a willingness to face one's fears and risk everything for the sake of the person one might become as a result.
Baldwin's passing in 1987 served as a wakeup call, putting Whaley on the path to finding and expressing her authentic self, and living out a fuller purpose through her art. Whaley had made a name for herself in the world of fashion, traveling the world with her own clothing line among other accomplishments. However, she had come to feel that her life needed to be about more than just clothes.
"My life had to be more of a sharing and a giving," said Whaley. "It could not just be about me."
While reeling from the loss of her brother, who, at 19 years her senior, had served as more of a father figure (their father died on the same July day Whaley was born), Whaley turned to the molding of clay at the behest of a sculptor-friend who thought it could help her process her grief.
As Whaley shaped the clay, figures began to emerge. "What's very interesting about it was I'm watching this and these faces are coming, but they were the faces of my brother," said Whaley.
Her brother's face has never left her work. It is reflected in the eyes of the figures and dolls Whaley crafts. These eyes have become something of a signature, an instantly recognizable element of her work that often touches on the themes of ancestry and the way one carries the legacy of those who affected one's life but have passed on.
"When you talk about the loss and what's gone, I had to start to realize that it's not really gone," said Whaley of what her art has taught her.
Much as her purchase of the building on Charles Street was a revisiting of her past in Harlem, Whaley's work preserves her connection to a past that lives on not only in the faces of her work, but in the very way her studio has become an open house for other artistic endeavors in Baltimore.
In addition to serving as a gallery showcasing area artists, Whaley has opened her studio, named the Oneeki Design Studio, to Fanon Hill and Navasha Daya's Youth Resiliency Institute, which uses the space to introduce children to the artistic process, and recently, to film an episode for a youth-directed video news program.
The studio has become a place of surrender for Whaley. The she surrenders to her mission to share and give, honoring the legacy she inherited from the brother that raised her and from her mother, who tended over a home in Harlem that was always open to those in their community.
"You can't do someone else," said Whaley of what her art and studio have come to represent. "Or you can't follow everything to the letter like how we're trained. You have to come out of that box and really be you. Your authentic self."
The Oneeki Design Studio is located at 2103 North Charles St. and is open to the public on Sundays, so visitors can see and purchase the works of Thomas and Helena Wise.