Art with a purpose

A prominent artist and popular motorcycle builder/reality TV star partner to promote manufacturing


It’s not every day that you get a call from a reality TV star looking for sponsorship for a collaborative project with a world-renowned sculptor. But that’s what happened when ESAB’s Sue Bartholomew, director of global marketing operations, picked up the phone in early 2017 and talked to Jesse James, owner of West Coast Choppers and the star of Monster Garage and other popular TV shows.

Bartholomew and James worked together on sponsorship for programs in the past, so James knew who to call to get another program rolling – this one designed to get today’s youth involved in metal fabrication as a career. Another exciting aspect to this program was that James would get to partner with one of his idols – world-renowned sculptor Albert Paley.

“He told me that he wanted to tell me a story,” says Bartholomew, who proceeds to talk about how James as a kid, “wanted to be like Paley.”


“Ambiguous Equation” is the name of the sculpture started by Jesse James and finished by Albert Paley.

As part of that story, James recalled that as a youngster, he reached out to Paley, seeking to apprentice with him (the apprenticeship never happened) and that he gets the same type of requests from youngsters today.

After years of admiration, James finally met Paley. Through that meeting, they agreed to partner on two sculptures, the making of which would be filmed by PBS, that would eventually be sold at auction to benefit a program to encourage today’s youth to enter the metal fabrication industry. The amount needed to fund the PBS documentary was $150,000. This included the ability to broadcast the presentation as well as shoot it, Bartholomew says.

“He asked me how much I could do to help him,” Bartholomew says of James. “I felt it was huge opportunity and that the manufacturing association foundations would want to get on board.”

In addition to the financial support that James could raise initially, the money gained through the sale of the two sculptures could support grants, scholarships and educational opportunities created by the educational foundations of the five Fabtech co-sponsors. Those co-sponsors are the American Welding Society, SME (previously the Society of Manufacturing Engineers), Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Precision Metal Forming Association and Chemical Coaters Association International.

Beyond that, the PBS broadcasts would also bring broad exposure to the sponsoring foundations and, ultimately, provide opportunities to people seeking careers in the metal fabrication industry.


“Raiden,” a combination of lacquered steel and copper, remained on display over the duration of Fabtech 2017 in Chicago.

Building on a reputation

James opened his custom motorcycle shop, West Coast Choppers, in 1992. Often referring to himself as a “glorified welder,” James turned heads with his ability to design and build unique, custom motorcycles. Over the years, he also expanded into custom cars as well as custom firearms and culinary chef knives.

While branching out as a producer, author and TV star, launching Monster Garage in 2002 on the Discovery Channel and appearing on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, he still remains true to his roots as a custom fabricator. 

Paley, on the other hand, began his metalworking career designing jewelry, and had established a name for himself as an influential and distinguished metalsmith. His sculptures have appeared in more than 150 national and international exhibitions, and he’s the first metal sculptor to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Architects.

In 1974, Paley was commissioned to produce the “Portal Gates” for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art. He also has portal gates installed in the New York State Senate Chamber at the state capitol. The artist has numerous awards to his credit, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Master of the Medium award.

In an interview with PBS for the documentary, Paley said he’d been approached by others to collaborate in the past, but said it was never a situation that was “viable.” With James, however, Paley said they established a unique opportunity for a special purpose.

“It’s a great opportunity for me personally just to be able to work with you,” James remarked to Paley in the interview. “You’re someone I’ve looked up to and admired for so long, now we get to put hands on metal together – that’s pretty special.”


With an estimated 50,000 people in attendance over the course of four days at Fabtech, plenty got a chance to see the sculptures by Jesse James and Albert Paley as they were on display in the Grand Concourse of the McCormick Place convention center.

Addressing the skills gap

Bartholomew says that high-profile partnerships like the Paley-James project are important due to the skills gap that the manufacturing industry is facing today.

“We need talented people out there,” she says. “So we’re passionate about supporting this whole concept, as well.”

ESAB actually established its own program in 2017 called Metal Mentors to support students in careers in metalworking. The website for the program, according to a news release, is a “single collaborative content destination from six organizations that pay it forward to the next generation. The site links to financial, educational and informational resources to those people seeking opportunities in the metalworking trades.”

Shyam Kambeyanda, president of ESAB, said in the release that by working together, “we create greater possibilities for supporting the skilled trades and manufacturing and engineering careers targeting secondary and post-secondary students in technical education, manufacturing and engineering programs.”

ESAB announced a student contest last year called WeldItForward, which offers equipment, filler metal and cash prizes totaling $97,000-plus. James, too, has a history of supporting education. He established the Long Beach Education Foundation and the associated Jesse James Industrial Arts & Welding Program to give students the skills they need to get started in a lifelong career.


Sue Bartholomew, ESAB’s director of global marketing operationsleads the question and answer session for Jesse James and Albert Paley at Fabtech 2017 in Chicago.

The unveiling

On Nov. 6, 2017, the opening day of Fabtech, James and Paley stood in the middle of a throng of onlookers in the Grand Concourse at the massive McCormick Place convention center in Chicago, home of Fabtech 2017. Their sculptures, veiled in large cloth, were roped off as the artists eagerly waited to reveal them.

Finally, James reached up and pulled down the cloth covering “Raiden,” a combination of lacquered steel and copper, which was started by Paley and finished by James. Paley did the same with “Ambiguous Equation,” a combination of steel, copper, aluminum and stainless steel, which was started by James and finished by Paley.


With an estimated 50,000 people filtering through the hall throughout the four days of Fabtech, the sculptures remained on prominent display for all to see. The sculptures did not sell at auction, but they are listed at $75,000 at the Wright Auction House in Chicago. Once the PBS program airs, it should generate plenty of interest in the sculptures from prospective buyers.

In the interview with PBS, James said of the pieces that, “this is the first thing I’ve done that’s art that doesn’t have to go 100 miles per hour.”

ESAB Welding & Cutting Products

The Paley-James Project

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