Willie Cole’s BRAND/IDENTITY
Brad Leuchte/THE GATEPOST
By Sara Silvestro
An electric cooktop glows from the heat while a heavy, old metal iron rests on top.
A man walks over holding ice grips in his gloved hands. He quickly grabs the metal iron and swings back towards his studio table. He sits his iron on the canvas in front of him for seconds at a time.
He begins to move the iron at a fast pace across his canvas, embedding heat into the paper and scorching it before the iron cools and brings the art piece to a halt.
Willie Cole, a printmaker and visiting lecturer, manipulates and embeds his canvases using hot irons. Cole’s art media have changed over the years from using irons, hair blowers, women’s shoes and lastly water bottles.
Through his work, Cole has touched upon historical, spiritual, social and interracial subjects. Most recently, Cole showcased his art collection “Brand/Identity” in the Mazmanian Art Gallery at Framingham State University as part of the Arts and Ideas Series.
For two days, Cole and Marc Cote, dean of the Arts and Humanities, gave tutorials to students in the art classrooms.
Cole ended his last day visiting FSU by sharing his work, inspirations and story to the FSU community in the Forum. Cole remarked that in the two days of being at FSU, he felt as though he lived here.
It is unlikely that most people would see an iron as an art tool to create a mask or a shield as Cole wills it to be.
“I wanted to go into the art world with an identity,” said Cole. “So I decided to become a scorcher.”
In 1987, Cole was on his way back to his New York studio when he found a metal iron in the middle of the street. The iron had been run over by a car and looked like an African Mask, according to Cole.
Cole took a picture of the iron with a polaroid and stared at the picture for days, writing down lists of everything he saw. Cole said he had to “separate what the iron is and its function to see something else from it.”
Cole said he saw African roots and traditions just by looking at the print.
“The roots of this whole vanity culture grows from slavery,” said Cole.
Cole shared that his great-grandmother was a domestic servant for a doctor in town. Cole described her has a hard-laboring woman.
“All her life she worked for this doctor and his family ironing their clothes,” said Cole.
From the print of an iron, he created an art piece called “Stowage.” In “Stowage,” the tribal masks are differentiated from each other by their steam holes. The masks surrounded a ship in the shape of an ironing board. This was equivalent to the idea of slave ships, he said.
The irons, which Cole prefers to be from the ’50s and ’60s, can easily become two things – a mask if the tip of the iron points downward and a shield if it points upward.
Cole related this to the attacks on slaves. He described Malcolm X’s definitions between a house negro and a field negro.
“House negros were domestic warriors,” he said.
Their ironing boards become their shields in his imagination, he said. And, “Your iron becomes your weapon.”
Through scorching, heating up the irons and placing them on the canvas, Cole is able to achieve symbolic designs and colors to not only identify African tribal colonies but traditions as well.
The scorching symbolizes “fleshmarking,” or branding practices. The tan or brown color on the canvas from the heat represents African American skin color.
In his art piece, “5 Stances for Domestic Defense, 2013,” Cole said he was inspired by Japanese and African warriors. For each warrior, Cole said he had to move quickly so he wouldn’t lose the heat from the iron.
Moving at a fast pace was beneficial to Cole. He not only didn’t want the paper to burn but he didn’t want to “to think about it too much. I want to feel my art,” he said.
The second warrior from the right, Cole described as a jazzy shaman. His “hands,” made from scorching, can be seen as the warrior’s “jazz hands,” according to Cole.
He included his own self-portrait into his branding collection. In “Men of Iron, 2004,” Cole scorched his own body with Photoshop. He felt it was important to include himself in his work. “I scorched a hot iron into the art world,” he said.
Cole said he scorched for 10 years before coming to a pause. Other sculptures and exhibits Cole has worked on for private collectors and museums have been created from using hair blowers and women’s shoes.
While visiting FSU, Cote and Cole took a trip to a nearby thrift store where Cole purchased a pair of shoes for his sculptures. Each sculpture is a face. Cole said he only uses women’s shoes and never men’s or boots.
Cole said pumps make great lips and stilettos make excellent fangs for his face sculptures. However, the process is time consuming. Cole said he sometimes spends most of his day peering through bins of shoes looking for the right fit.
If it slows him down too much then he keeps moving on to the next project. Cole said he would often be working on multiple shoe sculptures at once. His advice to students in this case is to “let the work make the decisions.”
Cole’s primary medium at this time is water bottles.
He has exhibited life-size vehicles, chandeliers and wands of nature. Cole said he looks at water bottles and believes they are filled with souls. When a person takes a sip, their soul slips in.
Cole said one night, he dreamed of a chandelier that had the face of Buddha on every crystal. He replicated his dream using water bottles with drawn on Buddha’s and created a chandelier. “Water bottles are so new to me that it’s exciting,” said Cole.
In Cole’s piece, “Waterland, 2015,” he photographed crushed water bottles on a light panel, which are meant to represent a garden he was inspired by in Hawaii.
“It allows me to make a contribution to the environment,” he added.
Cote said he knew some of Cole’s childhood growing up in Newark, New Jersey, and “that certainly favored his outlook.”
Cote also said it was interesting to learn about Cole’s investigation of his own ancestral heritage “for sources of pride and narrative, while also focusing on what happened when slaves were brought to America.”
Cote said Cole was very approachable to students as they were able to ask him individual questions.
“They [the students] were able to see that the most simplistic of things can have a great and deep meaning,” said Cote.
Cole said, “If you can be an art student it can really change your life. But if you can be an artist, it’s really a whole different journey.”
Calvin Ridley, a senior art major with a concentration in painting, said he could relate to Cole’s work because both Ridley and Cole use mixed medias. While Cole uses different techniques such as printmaking and scorching, Ridley uses different mediums.
“Overall I liked that a big focus on his work is on identity,” he said. “For him it’s more of a cultural and past identity. ... I like seeing other artists that focus on identity as a topic because I do the same thing with LGBTQ identities. It’s also social justice oriented which is very telling of the times right now.”
Erin Heitkamp, a senior art major with a painting concentration, said she was at first reluctant to go to a printmaking show because it did not apply to her, nor could she relate to it. However, she said she was amazed and saw that Cole’s work “really spoke to the greater mass here [at FSU].”
Heitkamp said it’s interesting how Cole is a serious artist but he lets himself have a lot of freedom in the way he constructs his artwork. “He plays,” she said.
Cole said, “Right after college, when I got my degree, I went and got a job as a janitor cleaning the bowling alley so I could be free all day to do my work. It takes a while to 2nd yourself.” He said he had art related jobs for four years until he realized struggling with multiple jobs was just as difficult as being an artist, so he decided to stick with his talent.
Guiselda Duran, a senior art major with a ceramics concentration, said she never did printmaking before until Cole came to her class for a demonstration.
“What I like about it [Cole’s gallery exhibition] is it deals a lot with identity,” said Duran. “A lot of it deals with where I come from, which is Mexico. I found it to be very inspiring and hope to use those influences in my own work.”
Cole said, “There are a lot of ways to make a living as an artist. ... It’s about the choice – and the commitment to the choice- and having faith.”