Wednesday, July 20, 2011

FIVE: Willie Cole

“FIVE” is a special feature at BlackArtistNews where five questions are posed to an individual artist, curator, gallerist, collector or art lover. Why five questions? Well, there are five fingers on each hand and artists create with their hands hence one, two, three, four, FIVE.
Willie Cole. BlackArtistNews photo. All rights reserved.

To assess Willie Cole’s varied artistic achievements and simply dub him a “Renaissance Man” or the “quintessential artist” is clichéd and lazy-minded. Given the volume and quality of his proficiency to express, one realizes that he’s not just merely an art maker but rather a creative force who materializes his ideas into work that comfortably rests within the firmament of art history. (Watch the YouTube clip "Willie Cole Interview" embedded at the end of this blog and witness as he transforms secondhand high heels into first-class high art.) During a recent trip to Chicago to unveil a collaborative print produced with Hummingbird Press Editions Director and Master Printer Thomas Lucas, Cole obliged BlackArtistNews “FIVE”:

What were your college years like?

Aw, man. [Laughs.] I went to college in the seventies – from 1972 to ‘76. I started in New York at the School of Visual Arts. And we were, you know, not that far from the Civil Rights movement so the black students actually separated themselves from the white students.

Even in New York?

Even in New York, yeah. So…that’s how it was socially. But in terms of my art interests, the years were good because all of my teachers were famous artists in New York at the School of Visual Arts:  I had Chuck Close for painting and Jonathan Borofsky for sculpture.  And even though I was an illustration and graphic design major I [was] able to get these successful artists early in their careers as teachers. So that was a good thing. And when I went to Boston University the racism was much worse.
When did you attend Boston University?
I went to SVA for two years and I wanted to go to a big school ‘cause my sister went to Western Michigan and was in a sorority and having parties and a lot of fun. So I wanted to have the same experience so I went to BU. And um, it was worse there; the racism was worse there at the time.
Do you ever experience anxiety when you work?
When I work?
Yeah, when you create art. And if you do, how do you deal with it?
Well, I go through an emotional rollercoaster with every work of art because each piece becomes my entire life for months at a time. It’s my twenty-four hour focus; I dream about it, I think about it all day. And currently – the past two years – I’ve been living alone so it really gets to me more and more. Sometimes I find that I have to leave a piece alone for a month or so in order to see it. I do a lot of sculpture out of shoes so it’s easy for me to see that the shoe is something other than the shoe. But that doesn’t mean the public can see it. So I have to walk away from it for a month and come back and see what it looks like to me. So lots of emotions in general all around [my] art production.
At this point in your career whose insight and feedback do you trust the most?
Hum… [Pauses.] That’s a tough one. I’m glad this is not live radio. [Laughs.]
But that’s a tough one. In my life I’ve had three people but they’ve all passed away now. So I would have to say my former wife because she’s intelligent and worldly and she knows me well.
And the friends who have passed away?
I had a friend who was an African Art dealer named Lawrence Ramsey he passed away in ‘94. He was probably my greatest inspiration and mentor in life ‘cause he was a black man and he was self-employed, he was an art dealer [specializing] in African Art, he was aware of culture and he was a great man. And he introduced me to African art in a deeper way because he allowed me to pick up an African mask and put it on my face; you can’t do [that] in a museum! Or I could blow the ivory horn and you know all that kind of stuff. And most recently a friend of mine, an artist named Tony Lordi passed away last year. And he was my biggest fan but he saw me the way the world sees me, opposed to the way that I see myself. To me I’m still, you know, “Willie from the block.” But [Tony] always saw me as a successful, famous artist. On the phone he would call me and he would say “Hello, is this the famous Willie Cole?”
So you know, he kept me pumped up. And that was valuable. [Laughs.]
For you what matters most in art: truth or sentiment?
Ah, I would say truth.  But for me art is exploration. This gentleman and I were talking earlier today about art as a metaphor. It’s like in this piece here (Note: Cole is referring to the collaboration print mentioned earlier, see photo below.) people respond to it aesthetically and they won’t know what it means unless they have the knowledge of these symbols but they can still appreciate the beauty of it. So I don’t know that might be coming from truth and sentiment. [Laughs.] ’Cause the truth is there—it’s just a play on words. These are four representations of a steam iron but if you don’t know that, you’ll just see two women and chandelier and etcetera, etcetera. And you may get a sentimental feeling from that. But the truth is the real essence of the piece. So I guess I would have to say for me personally: truth. But if you put another word in there for me it would have to be transformation. I like transforming objects and making people see things differently for the rest of their lives; you’ll never see the same way again.
Does art matter?
Art does matter. Everything is art. Art is not just gallery and museum but just life in general. The visual awareness in existence is art. Somebody designed your shirt, the patterns on your shirt, the building we’re in. And art as a teaching tool – before the word “art” existed – people were being artistic by teaching the culture through object representation and through storytelling. So to me art is fundamental for life. The fact that we have something called the ‘Creation Story’ is evidence that art is valuable.
Willie Cole's collaborative print with Hummingbird Press Editions Director and Master Printer Thomas Lucas. BlackArtistNews photo. Copyright 2011 to the respective parties.

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