September 23, 2020

Cole’s inspiration: Malcolm, Bush, shoes

Artist Willie Cole spoke at the Nov. 18 Brown Bag Series. (Tom O’Dell / Photo Editor)

Willie Cole took the stage smiling.

“You know, when I came here, I thought about bringing a shield,” he joked.

The relatively unknown assemblage artist stirred controversy at the College last Fall when “Pixels” was installed outside the Art and Interactive Multimedia Building. Cole’s public art — four colorful, fiberglass and steel spheres — drew ire from students, who rallied in the form of a nearly 1,600-member Facebook group, “Whoever destroys those giant sparkly balls in the middle of TCNJ is my hero.”

The mud slung on the group’s Wall provided ample justification for Cole’s statement. But the artist took it in stride as he spoke to a packed crowd in the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall on Nov. 18 as part of the Brown Bag Series.

“Thank you for the publicity,” he said. “Whether it be good or bad, it’s all good for an artist.”

Before beginning a presentation on the evolution of his art over more than 30 years, Cole defended “Pixels.”

“I decided minimalism was the primary aesthetic in Western art today. It breaks down all our decorative and emotional (flourishes) into their most basic components,” Cole said. “That’s how I came to the concept. I thought it was good thinking on my part … I thought it was kind of deep.”

Cole incorporates minimalism into his gallery work as well, a concept he showcased through a slideshow of his work.

“‘Pixels’ are public art, and my public art approach is different from my gallery approach,” he said.

Cole’s “gallery approach” began in his first studio, a 3,000-square foot workspace in Newark he obtained after art school.

“I was a graphic designer, but the studio inspired me to become a fine artist,” Cole said.

Slides depicting his work provided the backdrop to Cole’s account of how he began crafting fine art from discarded junk.

“In the ’80s, we didn’t shop in stores, we shopped in abandoned lots,” Cole said, laughing. “Assemblage and found art was the big thing in that community of artists — in Newark in the 1980s. I was one of the leaders in that community … I was the most excited about it.”

Cole steered viewers through a short history of his “found art” phases — he went through a period of deep fascination with irons, then African art, then shoes.

“My original art career in the so-called professional world began with me making pieces out of irons,” Cole said, speaking of his work from 1988 to 1994.

Five of his iron-focused works appear in the College’s art gallery — “Infestation,” “Iron Board I,” “Iron Board II” and two untitled works. Cole presented others in his slide show, including a work titled “American Beauty” depicting a kneeling woman made of assembled irons.

“This piece was called ‘American Beauty’ because the brand of the iron used to make her breasts was called ‘American Beauty,’” he said.

Cole’s presentation revealed an artist heavily driven by ideas. He described a work called “Malcolm’s Chickens,” three chickens sculpted out of Styrofoam, matches and wax.

“I went to high school in the 1970s, and I was a fan of Malcolm X,” Cole said.

Cole said when he saw the World Trade Center towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001, he thought of a phrase commonly associated with X, “The chickens have come home to roost.” He crafted “Malcolm’s Chickens” in response to that idea. Of the three chickens, one was shipped to a gallery across the country.

“This chicken is essentially a firebomb. If I lit one of these matches, you’d all run out of here covering your noses. But he got through airport security and went safely on his journey,” Cole said.

He often toys with the provocative in his art. He completed a stint at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis., an art studio affiliated with the Kohler Company. Each artist who completes a residency with the Arts Center spends several months working with industrial pieces. In exchange for room and board, each artist must produce one piece for the Kohler Company. Cole said he planned to create “urinals shaped like high-heeled shoes” before settling on another idea — cows made from mangled toilet bowls.

“International Balls 2000,” a work showcased in the College’s gallery, also demonstrates Cole’s tendency to create contentious imagery.

“Something (George W. Bush) said on the news just made me say, ‘That president has a lot of balls,’ which led me to this piece,” Cole said of the assemblage of 136 bowling balls painted like flags. “In the Bronx, it was actually an award-winning exhibition. I won as a little-known artist, which surprised me, and Yoko Ono won the same award as a known artist.”

Though Cole wears the title of “little-known artist,” he’s certainly made his presence felt at the College. Countless irons, three chickens made of matches and 140 balls later, Cole wrapped up his presentation, preferring to pace in front of the large projector screen showing his works than stand behind the podium.

“I’m trying to get away from the brightness!” Cole said, shying away from the spotlight beaming onto the podium, which followed him.

As it would appear, Cole cannot escape the spotlight at the College.

Emily Brill can be reached at

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