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Willie Cole

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Born in New Jersey in 1955, Willie Cole received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York. He creates works in many media but is best known for his found-object sculptures. He transforms everyday mass-produced domestic objects such as bicycle parts, irons, and lawn jockeys into precious icons or symbolic representations that explore ideas of diversity, identity, and commercialization.

Cole will tell you that he is “open to all inspirations.? Among his many sources of inspiration are African and Asian art, contemporary art, West African religion, mythology and culture, as well as music, poetry, athletics, and his children. He also often references the African-American experience. He is concerned with the core spirit of an object—all of his work revolves around and emphasizes spirituality, and as a self-described “urban archaeologist,? he works hard to honor the memory of discarded objects. The steam iron is the single most important icon in Cole’s work—it symbolizes both the domestic role of women of color and Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron and war. The ultimate goal of Cole’s art is to incorporate the viewer, but when it comes to interpretation, he likes it “when people read and imply their own thing.?

I see many similarities between Cole’s work and the work of Andrea Carlson. She too sees objects “as milestones in a landscape of time, culture, and meaning,? as artifacts and heirlooms. Cole seems to agree with Carlson, as we can see in his work with found objects, whose surface quality acts like a documentation of the object's history to Cole. To both Cole and Carlson, the story of an object is essential to its worth. Carlson sees objects as “becoming surrogates for our identities, symbols connecting us to a larger group, or mnemonic devices reminding us of the stories we have been unconsciously told to remember.? This belief manifests in Cole’s work with irons, which become symbols of the domestic lives of colored women and which connect Cole and his audience to the Yoruba culture through Ogun and his story. Carlson too, like Cole, incorporates her audience into her works by trying to get them to imagine the stories bound to the objects she depicts, and though she doesn’t work in the same medium as Cole, includes references to many found objects in her works.

To a friend I would definitely recommend one of Cole’s exhibitions. His method of elevating found, discarded objects to the level of art in a ritualistic manner is quite touching. It is fun to see what he does with common objects that we never give a second thought to. I think one of the tasks of artists is to document the societies they live in at the time, and Cole has a very interesting take on that task. I find his work with irons particularly interesting: to symbolize a face or an African mask, Cole uses imprints of an iron pointing up, while an iron pointing down symbolizes a shield. Canvases scorched by irons reference Adinkra cloth found in Ghana. I would tell a friend to first to take a look at some images of Ancient African and Asian art before going to an exhibition though, so they could more easily see the similarities between those images and Cole’s art.

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"Artist's Biography." Anxious Objects: Willie Cole's Favorite Brands. 2006. Cantor Arts Center. 26 Nov. 2008 .

Carlson, Andrea S. "Artist's Statement." Art by Andrea Carlson. 26 Nov. 2008 .

Gaché, Sherry. "To All Inspirations: An Interview with Willie Cole." Sculpture 20 (2001): 24-29.

"Selected Works, 1997-2004." AFTERBURN--Willie Cole. 2006. Worcester Art Museum. 26 Nov. 2008 .

"Willie Cole." Alexander and Bonin. 26 Nov. 2008 .