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Famed Artist Willie Cole Visits Sparta High School

Jennifer Dericks

Sunday, March 16, 2014 • 6:26pm

SPARTA, NJ- Contemporary Artist Willie Cole came to Sparta High School to give a presentation about his work and the artistic process.  There were approximately 100 students in the auditorium.  Rather than go to lunch they took advantage of the opportunity hear the story of this artist whose career spans 30 years.  They listened intently and had the opportunity to ask questions.

Cole started his story from the beginning.  He said his mother began calling him her "little artist," from the time he was very young, tracing the comics at the kitchen table.  He never had to wonder about his identity as an artist. His artistic education continued at the High School for the Arts, where he focused on painting and music.  Cole related with the students,sharing his regret for having given up his classes in music to spend time, instead, with a girlfriend.  He also shared that there may have been some drawback to being identified as a talented artist because it allowed him to miss class work in favor of spending time in the art room. 

Beginning his artistic career as a painter and graphic designer, Cole was then drawn to create images using a steam iron.  Cole used a detailed diagram to explain to the students all of the interconnections that brought the steam iron to a place of importance to him and his art.  He presented his artistic process in a way that was understandable to high school students.

There was a slide of a his son's transformer figurine.  Cole related that his son brought the transformer toy to his studio, inspiring Cole to begin making sculptures, building on the concept that one thing can be transformed into something else.   The first were pieces using the irons themselves. Cole later moved on to use shoes; primarily women's shoes because they "more beautiful and there are more choices," then using men's shoes.  African tribal influence is  visible in the iron and shoe sculptures.  For some of the images of his shoe sculptures he shared, "Once it sees you, you see it."  There were sculptures representing figures and animals. 

Most recently Cole has used water bottles to create pieces that include a car on display in front of Summit town hall.  The inspiration for the water bottle sculptures, Cole related, was the result of a conversation about a commission for a show in Hamilton with no budget.  He had a water bottle in his hand at the time, "so I went with that."

Describing his process, Cole said he works on "several sculptures at one time so there are no mistakes, it is just unresolved." 

There were also a few slides of drawings using the colors red, black and white.  The inspiration for these images are blues songs including Crossroads, Round Midnight and Frankie and Johnnie.  Cole explained the symbolism of the impressions including doorways, horses and lawn jockeys, to represent crossroads, submission, leading and being led to religion.

Students took advantage of the opportunity to ask questions of the artist.  They wanted to know 

  • Which was your favorite sculpture; answer "not done it yet."
  • At what age did he start to receive recognition for his art? "All through school."
  • What inspires you? "I'm open to inspiration everywhere, it starts and I let it evolve.  I'm being inspired by you here."

Cole's work is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musuem of Modern Art and  the Whitney in New York City, The National Gallery in Washington DC,  National Museum of Fine Arts in the Montclair Museum and the Newark Museum and other museums across the country.  He gives similar lectures at least once a month and has given artists lectures at Newark Museum, Bard College, Montclair Museum and Rutgers. 

This summer Cole will be traveling to Cuba for an exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana.

For additional information about the artists visit http://www.williecole.com/

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