Fine Arts Seminar (Houghton College)

thinking critically and building community around art and design

Life as a Spiritual Act – Willie Cole

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.

-Hannah Folkerts

Willie Cole

Since this past week’s Fine Art Seminar was a conversation about our reflections on “Complex Conversations: Willie Cole Sculptures and Wall Works” I will share my own thoughts here by highlighting my three favorite pieces.

Stowage was the most visually outstanding piece in the show for me. It was a culmination all of Willie’s views about racial tensions. The design is clean and used recognizable symbols to portray the message. The scale of the piece also helps portray the seriousness of slavery that occurred.



Stowage, 2012

A splash of color makes Virgin of Healing (ascending) a fresh take on the iron design. The design is minimal yet powerful. Posed next to a similar design in orange adds another dimension of contrast. Knowing the incredible depth that the iron symbol holds, based on Willie’s talk, gives this piece even more meaning. The minimal work was always my favorite, making some of his work from the early 2000’s as well as current work not as preferred.


Virgin of Healing (ascending), 2012

It is interesting that the beat up iron board prints are entitled “beauty.” This challenges our view on what beauty is by suggesting it is more than appearances especially regarding gender roles. The pieces have an aged look to them as well making it seem that there is beauty in enduring a long life.


Five Beauties Rising, 1997


Being a graphic design myself, I was drawn to the strong and minimalist design in all of the pieces. The symbolism drawn from these shapes is very powerful. I admire Willie as an artist as he pushes himself by constantly trying new media. The pieces that were my favorite has a similar design aesthetic which I think is beautiful. Willie doesn’t need a lot to say a lot about social, political, racial and gender issues. Minimalism can be very powerful.


Joshua Duttweiler

Patterson Sims & Willie Cole

Patterson Sims is the curator for Willie Cole’s current exhibit, “Complex Conversations”. Though our Thursday time was spent only with Patterson Sims, his visit was inextricably linked with the work and presence of Willie Cole. Willie Cole is an artist from Newark, NJ whose various works deal with many layered subjects, including race, gender roles, and his African heritage.

Patterson Sims was impressively familiar with all of this. As he spoke on Thursday, it became clear that no one can know Willie Cole’s work quite like he does. Sims explained that this is because he has worked with Cole for about a decade. I was humbled, both by Sims’ dedication as well as by his humble demeanor as he demonstrated masterful knowledge of Cole’s work. He took no credit for the exhibition, only barely acknowledging how much he has assisted Cole throughout the years.

But at the same time, I understood his dedication to Cole. What an interesting artist, with works that are both so deep and so wide! “Complex Conversations” really is complex. Both Patterson Sims and Willie Cole explained the history and meanings contained within Cole’s works, but I feel like there will always be more to discover.

Cole’s works show masterful use of a wide variety of mediums, especially. His works with irons explore a wide variety of uses and heat levels. I was amazed, too, at his ingenious use of the shape of an iron as a face, house, and boat, and integrating the three in nearly every work. Personally, I feel Stowage is one of his most powerful uses of the shapes in combination. So many of his works were powerful, though, and it’s hard to even express the many ways the works touched me. Thankfully, Sims and Cole did a wonderful job of explaining his works already. I definitely plan to keep up with Willie Cole and his future works.

-Michael Carpenter

Patterson Sims (Curated for Willie Cole)

Patterson Sims (Curator for Willie Cole)

Patterson Sims is an independent curator and has been for many years. His most recent work has been for the Exhibition of “Complex Conversations” by Willie Cole. When listening to Sims discuss the amazing and powerful work that Willie Cole has accomplished throughout his life, I could see the passion that Sims had for these pieces and the hard work he has put into making everything perfect for the exhibition. When in the lecture room with Sims, he was sitting down and just explaining the work, but when we all went and visited Willie Cole’s work in the art gallery with Sims, I saw a light go on and I could tell that Sims was in a place that he loved and felt comfortable in. Sims showed Willie Cole’s most awe-inspiring work and the influences that played a big part in those pieces.
When looking at Willie Cole’s work online prior to Sims’ presentation, I will admit that I was quite confused when seeing hairdryers and shoes made into “faces” and sculptures and irons for a face on a body. After Sims thoroughly explained Willie Cole’s work and how everything was influenced by four generations of women in life, all of whom were domestic workers and in African slavery, it became very powerful to me because of the meaning behind the pieces.
Irons are a very prominent part in Willie Cole’s piece and he used the irons in many different ways. One way were his scorched paintings, where he burned different parts of canvas with an iron and scorched it in a way that made different colored scorch shades. Sims explained that these different shades represented the tremendous variety of race. This piece was especially powerfully to me after hearing the meaning behind it. Everything Willie Cole has worked with in his pieces has been reused items such as high heels, hair dryers and, in his most recent work, plastic water bottles. Sims stated that Willie Cole “likes to use things he can find and calls each thing a fractal that can make one big thing.” I really related to this statement because I think everything has the capability of being remade into something new.
I could tell how much work Sims did in learning about Willie Cole: where he came from, what his influences were, and what he is working on now. At the art opening Sim’s even asked more questions, which shows that he is still taking the time to learn about Willie Cole. I learned so much about the amazing and inspirational work made by Willie Cole thanks to the dedicated work of Patterson Sims.

-Natalie Benson

Alicia Taylor

Thursday night Alicia Taylor kicked off the artist lecture’s of the semester. She brought us through her work, both finished and in progress. Though I remember pieces of her talk a couple years ago, it’s great to hear her a second time, to be reintroduced to her work and shown where she has moved since then.

One body of work that was reintroduced to those of us that heard Alicia two years ago was Blind Contours. I really loved the work with the plaster mold she made of herself, and still do. From the plaster piece itself, to the video showing the shadows through it, to the drawing of those casted shadows. I find shadows themselves and using them to create a pieces are really interesting. They are/come from the original piece or source, and are still something all their own.

I also really enjoyed Alicia’s books. She does well bringing together her concepts and work to make a book.
The artist books are cohesive, yet each piece [represented] in it is still an individual piece.

Furthermore, I really enjoyed hearing about Alicia’s studio practice. It’s encouraging as an artist to see how important keeping it up and always making work or thinking about new work is. Even during all the moving and through the changes, Alicia continues to make/be thinking about new and fresh work, exploring new ideas and processes. And this really shows how much art is a part of her, always needing to create, and have something going in her studio.

-Grace Baleno

Patterson Sims

Through listening to both Patterson Sims and Willie Cole speak about the same work, I began to gain a different respect and appreciation for the role of the curator within the art world. Though in most cases curators and artists tend to only work with each other once, Patterson and Willie had been working together for I think around ten years. It was clear that Patterson not only was familiar with Willie’s work, but with Willie himself. Having been around through difficult times in Willie’s life, Patterson seemed to have a genuine understanding of the work produced during Willie’s darker times, as well as a passion and interest in his more recent and future projects.

In both seminar, as well as Willie Cole’s talk, I was fascinated to learn about Willie’s creative process and inspiration. The moment I really connected with his work was when he began to break down and explain the extensive layering of ideas within his work. Having multiple layers is something that I like to do in my own work, but Willie beautifully demonstrated how to take it to extremes without stretching it too far.

Willie ended the talk by saying “I hope I gave you something that you can grow with.” This conclusion really got me thinking about the way that we approach what is in front of us. Whether it be a piece of art, literature, music or anything in between, it is not about liking it or disliking it, it’s about learning and growing.

-Kayla Brophy

Patterson Sims

Patterson Sims is the curator of Willie Cole’s current exhibition “Complex Conversations”, this is his third time curating for Willie Cole. Sims is a an independent curator and president of Independent Curators International. He has worked in art since 1969 and has a long list of accomplishments including organizing many solo exhibitions of artists including Ellsworth Kelly, John Storrs, Jan Matulka, Viola Frey, Fred Wilson, Claire Zeisler, Willie Cole, and Hedda Sterne. One thing that was surprising for me about Sims was that he didn’t just arrange the artwork but he knew it thoroughly along with knowing the artist himself very well. Sims was able to go through the different meanings and influences of each piece in relation to the artist’s personal and professional life.

He even went digging through Cole’s studio and picked out a “rare” preparatory sketch (something not normally in Willie’s artistic process) to hang in the show. Not only did he have a keen eye for picking out art he also was skilled at helping the students understand the pieces. He talked about the materials and influences in an easy to understand format.

Perhaps even more admirable than Sim’s skill was his humility. He continuously commented when asked about his career that he was on his way to retirement to give other young people a chance to have jobs. He said that the people in need were much more important than whether or not he curated more.

-Emma Brittain


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