Over the past several weeks we’ve been able to experience Willie Cole’s work from a close-up perspective–hosting the work here on campus, hearing from the curator Paterson Sims, and hearing insight from Willie Cole himself. Being somewhat “immersed” in thinking about this work, the two things that struck me the most were the complexity of metaphors in his work, and his grasp of spirituality and how that impacted his practice.
After seeing so much of Willie Cole’s work, it is impressive that while keeping consistent themes and styles, he still brings a fresh energy in many of his pieces. After his talk on Saturday, it was clear that he has a love for puzzles and problem solving that allows him to create dozens and dozens of variants on a theme such as with the irons, and shoes. Most importantly however, every body of work has layers of meaning he has pulled from the object and it’s contextual implications. Understanding of the meanings behind the material is a driving force in his creation, and also brings a personal aspect to his work. For instance, in one of my favorite works, he prints battered ironing boards referencing tribal African shields, as well as the history of the domestic work of African American slave women, and the literal and metaphoric damage to them as individuals in submission. Each of the prints, “The Five Beauties Rising,” are named after an close and influential woman in his life. The shapes in these prints are somewhat monumental, and textures are striking and simultaneously delicate in a unique way. However, beyond visual impact, is the meaning behind the work that brings it to life, and allows himself as the artist to be interested in working consistently with the same materials.
Secondly, Willie Cole’s spiritual understanding undoubtably brought a different dimension to his work. Simply put, I believe he is actively seeking a cosmic purpose in his art-making. One of the things he said was that “life is spiritual act” and living with a deeper awareness of that, you will be able to see your work as a meaningful contribution to the world, and the enriching of your life. If you see your goal, you may choose to act on it as a kind of spiritual commission. I believe this idea may be applied in many areas of life as well. I’ll not pretend that I even scratched the surface of his beliefs and what he conveyed to us, but what I did take away was certainly valuable to me.
With his thoughtful work and spirituality, Willie Cole demonstrates that art can be a powerful means of understanding the world around you, and seeking to understand yourself. It was a great privilege to be challenged, provoked, and inspired by this artist and his creative practice.