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Archive for Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lawhorn’s Lawrence: The two minds of George Paley

April 13, 2014

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When you go on a Jamaican vacation, you pack your swimsuit and sunscreen. When George Paley goes on a Jamaican vacation, he packs his air compressor and plasma cutter.

And he carries them on as luggage on a commercial airliner. That's right. Paley got an air compressor and a plasma cutter through airport security.

"There is really no law against it," he notes.

Well, no written law, but what on earth would cause someone to take an air compressor and plasma cutter on a Caribbean getaway? The answer is simple: a collision. More specifically, a collision of minds.

Paley, you see, is a big wheel in Lawrence real estate. He owns a significant number of properties on Massachusetts Street and across the community. But Paley has another side that is every bit as important: an artistic one.

An air compressor and plasma cutter come in real handy to a man who travels to Jamaica to sculpt metal into art with with fellow artists.

So, if you have ever wondered what happens when the mind of a businessman collides with the mind of an artist, now you know at least one answer: weird carry-on luggage.

•••

Paley arrived in Lawrence in January of 1972. He had a van loaded with used blue jeans. One of his first stops was in front of a vacant Massachusetts Street storefront. He wanted to rent the space to sell the blue jeans and a few other pieces of used clothing.

"The owner looked at me with my pony tail and my van of blue jeans and said: 'I don't think my insurance is going to cover a business like yours,'" Paley recalls.

But Paley kept after it. He found a great spot near Seventh and New Jersey streets for his shop.

"It was great, except nobody ever came there," he says.

He hadn't quite learned the golden rule of real estate: location, location, location. But don't worry, he would.

He and his little store, Bokonon, kept moving. (He hadn't quite learned that naming a business after a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel wasn't the best business strategy either.) Eventually, though, Paley came to an important conclusion as he kept moving from spot to spot.

"I figured if I was going to stay in business, I had better buy a place that I can't get kicked out of," Paley says.

So Paley — with the help of his father, a Connecticut dairy farmer — bought his first downtown building. It is the one at 814 Massachusetts, which for years housed La Parrilla restaurant, and now houses the new Limestone Pizza Kitchen and Bar. That was in 1984.

The clothing business grew to the point it was hard to keep vintage clothes in stock. So Paley figured Hawaiian shirts would sell too. After all, he likes Hawaiian shirts. He started selling tropical shirts made out of natural fibers. Other natural fiber clothes would follow. The business' name became Natural Way, and it was a mainstay on Massachusetts Street until 2000, when Paley sold it and its Kansas City satellite store.

By then, Paley had accumulated a few more buildings. His wife, Judy, who is a stained-glass artist, had founded what was then known as the Phoenix Studio.

"She kept moving it, and I kept buying the buildings, it seemed," Paley said.

Today, Paley has to stop and do math in his head when asked how many buildings he owns downtown. He figures it is 11 total: nine that he and Judy own, one they own with one of their sons, and another they own in partnership with others. Across town there are several more.

But there is one purchase he still recalls in particular. It was around 1990, and he paid $140,000 to purchase the building at 845 Massachusetts St. For years it housed Penny Annie's candy shop, and it now houses the TCBY frozen yogurt store. He remembers it because the price he paid caused a stir in real estate circles. Many people thought he was crazy.

Today, the county appraiser pegs the value of the building at about $450,000.

Crazy? Nah. A plasma cutter on a plane is crazy.

•••

Paley wasn't quite sure how to bring up the topic at the Downtown Lawrence Inc. board meeting. They were meeting in the Abe & Jake's building along the river, and he needed his fellow meeting participants to help him carry a fish out of the building.

No, not one from the Kaw. That one over in the corner. A six or seven-foot sculpture made out of plate metal, springs, an auger, cable and pieces of old farm machinery. Paley had created it for an event for Friends of the Kaw. It didn't take long after the event was over for Paley's phone to ring.

"The next day, the wedding planner for Abe & Jake's called me and said you have to get this fish out of here," Paley says.

It just so happened that Downtown Lawrence Inc. was scheduled to have a meeting there. So, why wouldn't you help George Paley carry a fish out of Abe & Jake's?

Today, Paley's work, which includes everything from sculptures to masks, is gaining broader recognition. He had two pieces in the most recent Washburn University Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition, and his work is selling in galleries. Paley has opened his own gallery in warehouse space that he owns at 721 E. Ninth St. in East Lawrence. He plans to fill it for years to come.

"When I do art, I sort of lose myself," Paley says. "You go into this world and everything else seems to stop."

In some ways, Paley may be one of the more important artists in Lawrence. It goes back to that collision of business and art. Lots of artists have a vision for what Lawrence can become, but Paley has a lot of resources he can bring toward the vision. He donated vacant space in downtown to help the Final Fridays effort get off the ground, and he has been a key supporter of the Warehouse Arts District that is growing in East Lawrence.

"Lawrence should be the Santa Fe of the Midwest," Paley says. "We don't have the mountains, but we have the artists. If everybody was working together, we could do it. The city has come a long way. The chamber has come a long way. They have seen how many people it can bring to town."

Paley, 65, hopes it all comes about. But even if it doesn't, his foray into art will have been worth it. He said he's always had an artistic side to him, which got a heavy dose of fuel in Austin, Texas, when he was a student of radio and film at the University of Texas. But for years, he let it lie dormant, until a friend convinced him to take a welding class in the 1990s. From there, he realized he could do metal sculpting with his new skill. He then convinced a KU professor to let him sit in on a sculpting class for 10 straight semesters.

"I just realized that when you are looking at your life in a big-picture way, you don't want to wait until you are 64 and then figure out what you want to do," Paley says.

Paley says art has helped him discover something very basic.

"Art brings another dimension to your life," Paley says.

Or helps you find the dimensions that are already there. Another dimension, another mind. Honestly, how many of us are truly of one mind? It may not be the combination of business and art, but many of us have more than one side to us. But how many of us work hard to keep them separated?

A guy who has had everything from a plasma cutter in his carry-on to a load of used blue jeans in his van has a piece of advice for us: Have some fun. Let them combine. Let them collide.

Really, there's no law against it.

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