At the age of 58, Willie Cole may be best known for using household items and found objects in his art. His large wall sculpture, called With a Heart of Gold is part of the exhibition now on display at the Richmond Center for Visual Arts on Western Michigan University's campus.
Don Desmett is the director of exhibitions at the Richmond Center, where the piece is centered on the gallery’s far wall.
“It’s about six feet in diameter.” Desmett says. “It’s a mandala shape, so it takes on a very historical shape on the wall, but again it’s made up of hundreds of high heel shoes. It also has some very formal elements. We talk a lot about the subject matter with Willie’s work, but this is almost an abstract piece where the use of color, the use of gold, makes this just a beautiful thing to look at.”
Willie Cole lives close to where he grew up, in Newark, New Jersey. His home doubles as his studio.
“I actually prefer living in the studio,” Cole says. “That way I can walk away from the work for hours at a time, then come back the moment inspiration hits me.”
Cole says he first started creating art with used high heeled shoes in the 1990’s, and the shoe continues to appear in his work, in part because it’s a readily available material.
“In 2005, I became a fellow at the University of Georgia and I was in a new studio space with no materials," he says. "So, I decided to keep working with shoes because there was a thrift store nearby. The thrift store began to collect shoes for me and when they had a big amount I bought all they had. That was probably 20 or 30-thousand pairs of shoes, purchased at one time, purchased by the pound.”
Another recurring symbol in Cole’s work is the steam iron. Desmett says it was Cole’s use of iron scorch marks on paper that first attracted him to the artist’s work.
“The idea of the scorched iron has so many ways to enter it in terms of an image. It has this kind of domestic history. But then the shape of it is not unlike the shape and pattern of the slave ships that brought hundreds of slaves over. Again, we have in this show, one of Willie’s best pieces, called Stowage, which looks like a diagram of a slave ship.”
On display at the Richmond Center gallery Stowage is a huge print, measuring about 5 by 7 feet. Not far away is Cole’s Virgin series of prints, made with a steam iron. The artist says sometimes the material he’s working with leads him to certain results.
“The scorch pieces, the ones that are based on the bottom of the iron, actually called the sole plate of the iron…I have a large collections of steam irons, mostly from the 50’s and 60’s and they each have different steam hole patterns,” Cole says. “So, rather than dictate what something is going to become, I prefer to respond to what the object communicates to me. So that particular steam iron, once the image was enlarged, I immediately saw the Virgin of Guadalupe in the middle of the steam hole pattern. So, that’s how that came about. So, I decided I would make them in different colors, but name them after the spiritual attributes of each color based on Tibetan Buddhism.”
Artist Willie Cole’s exhibition called Complex Conversations is on display through February 15 at WMU.