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 Willie Cole  (1955 - )

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Lived/Active: New York/New Jersey      Known for: sculptor-large household items, prints

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The Man behind the Mask: A Short Biography of Willie Cole

Although Willie Cole began repairing irons for his mother and grandmother as a young child, it was not until the late 1980s that he began using these appliances in his artwork. The element of iron is significant in African culture and spirituality, especially to the West African Fon and Yoruba peoples (“Isn’t it Ironic” 9).  According to an article in Vision, published by the Orlando Museum of Art, “Iron as a material is the guise of the powerful god Ogun, whose force stands for male power, weapons, and fertility” (“Isn’t it Ironic” 9). In addition to strength and power, irons symbolize female domesticity.  Two generations of women in Cole’s family were domestics, responsible for household tasks (“Isn’t it Ironic” 8).  In fact, Cole discovered that his great uncle was named “Iron Cole,” perpetuating the mysterious reappearance of the iron motif in his own life (Sims 94).

Willie Cole, the son of Jacqueline and Willie, Sr., was born in 1955 in Somerville, New Jersey.  At the age of three, Cole declared he wanted to become an artist, so his mother enrolled him in children’s art classes at the Newark Museum.  His interest in art persisted throughout his teenage years, and he was accepted at Newark’s Arts High School.  While there, he immersed himself in many different forms of art, including music and theater, and eventually majored in fashion design (Sims 18).  After graduating high school, Cole attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1976.  After graduation, Cole continued to enroll in various art classes for three years.

In 1981, Cole moved to Ironbound, a neighborhood in Newark surrounded by factories and warehouses, many of which “moved away or failed in the years [Cole] was there” (Sims 19).  In 1982, Cole founded the Works Gallery in his apartment.  The gallery served not only as a place where artists met but also where political gatherings were held.  Cole made an effort to support other African American artists by displaying their work.  During the years his gallery was open, from 1982 until 1986, visual arts became more important in Cole’s life, and his interest in the performing arts faded.  Cole knew that his perspectives could be more successfully displayed in the visual arts than through theater and music. Cole’s artwork at this time was also enhanced through his exploration of Buddhism and other religions.  This spiritual exploration, in addition to the religious studies of Joseph Campbell, influenced Cole’s use of “Tibetan, Indian, and other cultural beliefs and motifs” in his visual artwork (Sims 20).

Willie Cole produced primarily works in pastel and watercolor during the 1980s.  Although these works involved many subjects, Patterson Sims indicates that “wild and agitated street dogs” (20) were Cole’s favorite.  He continued to focus on dogs as he began utilizing metal scraps and pieces of bark instead of pastels and watercolors.  In 1988, Cole was accepted to the Artist-in-Residence program in Harlem.  Maturing as an artist during this time, Cole continued to collect items off the street to construct assemblages.  Instead of metal and wood refuse, however, he salvaged items from the “abandoned factory and warehouse spaces, thrift stores, and his family’s and friends’ giveaways” (Sims 21).  Cole began incorporating these items, which included irons and ironing boards, into his assemblages, utilizing the objects’ forms and functions to symbolize African history and culture.

By 1989, Willie Cole began to explore patterns scorched on canvas and paper with hot irons.  Three years later, Cole created a series of scorches on the canvas coverings of folding ironing boards.  One such series titled Domestic Shields includes twelve different ironing boards with scorched canvases.  As Cole states, “Burning the canvas, you know, you hear it, you smell it, and you feel the heat.  There is something special in that [which] translates throughout the piece, whether it is just the figure or the scorching itself’ (qtd. by Sims 45).  This scorching is representative of tattooing, scarification, and even branding rituals found throughout African culture.  According to Jean Borgatti, a different electric steam iron was used for each of the twelve shields (22).  In fact, Cole utilized different heating techniques to produce a wide-variation of color in each of the shields, which correspond to the differing skin colors characteristic of African and African American ethnicities (Sims 42).

In addition to works on canvas, Willie Cole extended the iron motif to his sculptures.  In 1996 and 1997, Cole created five large wood sculptures based on irons: Luba 600%, Kanaga Field Iron, Chewa 600, Twari House Iron, and 1726% (Sims 57).  The material, size, and shape of the irons are the varying factors in each of these sculptures.  The Chewa 600, for example, was constructed from bamboo, wood, jute, rope, and straw and represents the Chewa masquerades, in which woven fiber costumes were worn (Sims 57). Each of these irons replicated irons Cole had collected.  The numbers in their titles refer to the percentage each iron was enlarged from its original size.  For each of these wood sculptures, the iron shape signifies something much greater than a common household appliance; it represents both shields and slave ships, powerful symbols of African history (Sims 57).

In 1999, Cole collaborated with printers Randy Hemminghaus and Gail Deery to create Man Spirit Mask, a triptych created using many printing procedures.  The leftmost image in the work is a manipulated image of Cole staring directly into the viewers’ eyes.  Cole’s photograph was cut in half, and the left side of his face was doubled over and fused together to create a perfectly symmetrical image.  Brown steam holes and slits are imposed over this image, revealing Cole’s face as tattooed or scarified, a common tribal ritual.  The center image of the work appears as a scorched pattern created by a hot iron.  The steam holes seen in the leftmost image are identical to the steam holes produced by the hot iron in the center image.  This image was created in an unconventional manner by scorching lemon juice onto the paper.  In the right image, Cole’s portrait has been inverted with an aerial view of a woodcut of an iron placed over it.  Thus, Cole’s image is transformed into an African mask, evoking his African heritage (Sims 73; Bernard 11).

Throughout his lifetime, Willie Cole encountered irons in his family history, religious studies, and even in places he lived.  The iron motif represents the numerous struggles seen throughout African and African American history and culture.  The literal use of irons and ironing boards in Cole’s works references the domestic work done by many African American women both in times of slavery and freedom.  In addition, Cole’s scorching technique symbolizes tattooing, branding, or scarification rituals commonly performed by African tribes.  Although his works symbolically strive to “compress time, to speak about the past, the present and the future all in one stroke” (qtd. by Borgatti 22), Willie Cole affirms that his work is not about presenting the culture of African and African Americans.  Instead, it is about challenging viewers’ perceptions of reality and forcing them to view the world through his perspective.

Works Cited:
Bernard, Catherine. Willie Cole: Iron Works. The Avram Gallery: Southampton, N.Y. 1999: 3-12. Print.
Borgatti, Jean. “Willie Cole’s Africa Remix.” African Arts 42.2 (2009): 22. Print.
Cole, Willie. 1726%. 1997.
--. Chewa 600. 1997. 1997.
--. Domestic Shields I-XII. 1992.
--. Kanaga Field Iron. 1997.
--. Luba 600%. 1996.
--. Man Spirit Mask. 1999. Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, WV.
--. Twari House Iron. 1997.
 “Isn’t it Ironic.” Vision Issue 28 (2009): 8. Print.
Sims, Patterson. Anxious objects: Willie Cole’s favorite brands. Montclair, N.J.: Montclair Art     Museum, 2006. Print.

Researched, written and submitted by Rikki N. Miller for an undergraduate art history project at Marshall University in Huntington, West Viriginia. (February 19, 2011)

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