Tag Archives: accidental masterpiece

Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

by Carey Terhune, BLS Humanities student
introduced by Ann Millett-Gallant

The students in my BLS 346: “The Art of Life” class had an assignment to write a review of an art exhibition or a work of public art.  One of my students, Carey Terhune, wrote this strong review of the Willie Cole exhibition, which is on view at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum through December 15.  Carey is originally from Orange County, California and now lives in High Point, NC with her husband and 3 children.  She is currently a student in the BLS program and aspires to be a book or film critic and to write her own book one day.  When she is not doing school work or taking care of her kids, she enjoys writing, blogging, entertaining and cooking with her great friends, and traveling with her family.

Willie Cole, Man, Spirit, Mask

Man, Spirit, Mask (1999)

 Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

The artist Willie Cole is known for transforming ordinary objects into symbolic representations, with themes ranging from the African slave trade and West African tribal traditions to American urban life and personal identity. In his exhibition entitled “Complex Conversations: Willie Cole Sculptures and Wall Works,” Cole presents a collection of forty pieces from across his professional career, covering a range of artistic mediums, including three dimensional sculptures, drawings, embossing, and prints.  This collection in particular features found objects, such as old hairdryers, discarded high heeled shoes, and most prevalently, the steam iron, which pervades the majority of his work.  Cole exemplifies what Michael Kimmelman describes in his book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, as the kind of artist who celebrates the beauty in ordinary things. Kimmelman reminds us that, “it is the ability of more circumscribed artists to slow our systems, calm our minds, and show us reality as we have probably not considered it…” (214). Cole revitalizes and transforms the ordinary, and it is with these uniquely simple elements that he invites us to mine our way through this exhibition and experience the complexity of his work.

Having spent the majority of his life in Newark, New Jersey, as the eldest son in a primarily matriarchal family, Willie Cole’s work is anchored in his love of urban life, and respect for feminine power. He identifies himself as an “urban archaeologist,” (Joyner) creating his work from a global perspective, and representing the human experience.  It is obvious that Cole has a very personal connection with all of the pieces in this collection, which is apparent from the moment one enters the gallery at Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. The very first piece we encounter, Self Portrait, ca. 1979, is a simple pastel drawing on a brown paper bag just inside the main entrance to the gallery. Cole uses vibrant pastel colors to highlight his face as if reflecting the glow of inner-city lights at night. This image seems to be welcoming visitors to the exhibit, and introducing Cole as the artist.

Willie Cole, Shoe Bouquet

Shoe Bouquet (2009)

As we continue through the spacious gallery, painted white from floor to ceiling, we encounter one of Cole’s featured pieces, Shoe Bouquet, 2009, constructed out of wood, screws, metal, staples, and hundreds of worn-out, women’s, high-heeled shoes in a variety of colors. The leather and varying fabrics of the shoes are bent and curled into giant flowers seeming to create a four-foot-high bouquet. It is positioned in the center of the first segment of the gallery because it is truly meant to be experienced from all sides. Each flower reveals layers of dimension and texture, calling attention to the bottoms of most of the shoes, as if to salute the miles walked in them by hundreds of women. It’s as if he’s returning the shoes to their original beauty by transforming them into this symbolic gift to women.

Moving forward through the gallery we pass by some of his beautiful prints, drawings and photographs featuring images of West African tribal traditions infused with countless steam iron impressions.  To the left we encounter, Double Headed Gas Snake, 1997, a sculpture constructed of articulating sheet metal hoses with metal nozzles and rebar. It resembles a giant snake with two heads, which seem to be fighting one another. This is another reference to Cole’s urban upbringing, in that it addresses the issues of urban violence, and acknowledges its presence as an intricate part of the beauty of inner-city life.

Willie Cole, Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Progressing further we encounter Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4, 2007, a pale pink pigmented, cotton liner paper with embossing, cut by water stream. This piece at first seems somewhat dull and monochromatic compared with some of his more vibrant works, but as we move closer it becomes clearer that these large, snowflake-like paper cutouts are more symbolic of Cole’s artistic style. They are delicate, as if to appeal to women, featuring layered impressions of steam irons. And yet, they have a slightly dirty and torn appearance, fitting right in with the urban themes of the exhibition. An even closer look reveals details that connect it to Cole’s tribal themes as well, including dozens of tiny spears and overlapping steam iron cutouts that resemble tribal masks at the corners of each of the four pieces.

Cole continues this collaboration of themes in several other pieces throughout the exhibition. Examples include a tribal mask constructed out of dismantled antique hairdryers; an oversized antique ironing board that resembles a tribal shield, embellished with steam-iron-scorched markings; and a sculpture assembled using parts of an old bicycle that resembles an African mask dance figure.

Willie Cole, Wind Mask

Wind Mask (1991)

Nearing the end of the exhibition, on a large white wall shared with just one other piece, hangs Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999, a three-part image in which Cole utilizes photo etching, a silkscreen, and wood to artfully draw the viewer into his private world. In this piece we are able to see how Cole’s identity is interwoven with the elements and themes of his work.  This piece arranges a photo etching of the artist, a steam iron scorched impression, and a tribal mask print. They are displayed side by side, representing the man, the spirit, and the mask. All resemble one another in scale, size, shape, and color, and all seem to express the same stalwart gaze, but are different parts of the whole person, as an artist. With so many varying mediums represented in this collection, Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999 seems to merge these components into one powerful representation of the artist himself. We begin our exploration of this collection with the simple yet captivating greeting of his Self Portrait, ca.1979, and by the end we understand Willie Cole, and his bold and soulful exhibition, on a more personal level. This melding of artistic inspirations using commonplace items defines Cole’s work in this collection and throughout his career, reminding us that beauty and meaning can be found in the most ordinary objects, which are “accessible to us all, at almost any time, if we are just prepared to look for them” (Kimmelman, 214).

Works Cited

Joyner, Amy. “Found Object Sparks Theme in Artist Willie Cole’s Work.News and Record. Web. 5 October 2013.

Kimmelman, Michael. The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.

Re-Membering

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Re-Membering coverI began teaching for the BLS Program in Spring 2007.  I taught my “Photography: Contexts and Illusions” class and was developing another BLS course, “The Art of Life,” as well as an Introduction to Art class.  I was supposed to begin teaching full time the next Fall, but life interfered.  While traveling with a friend in San Francisco in May, I had an accident and suffered from traumatic brain injury.  I did teach Photography again Fall of 2007, but it would be another year before I could resume all my teaching.

Bob Hansen was kind enough to cover my “Art of Life” course for me until the Fall of 2008.  When I first began teaching it, it was all new to me, because my accident had caused significant memory loss.  I did not recall how the class was conceived or why I chose the specific examples and readings for it.  However, I felt an eerie sense of fate or destiny teaching a course based on the idea that art emerges from everyday life, and that specifically art may be considered, ultimately, as an accident.  Much of the subject matter of the course surrounds how accidents can lead to insight and inspiration, and I began teaching it while I was still struggling with the physical and psychological effects of my accident.  One of the writing assignments my students had to complete was an essay on the theme of loss and discovery, which resonated with a lot of what I was going through – dealing with my own losses (of identity, memory, time, etc.), as well as discovering new aspects of myself.  I felt inspired to write a response to my own assignment about my accident and its effects on my life, both its consequential losses as well as its discoveries.  This is the essay I now post each semester that I teach the course:

For most of 2007, my existence may best be characterized as lost.  I had lost weight, lost hair, lost part of my skull, lost much muscular movement and fluidity, and lost my mobility.  I had lost my memory, my history, my sense of security, and my identity.  I had lost my mind.

Backing up…In May of 2007, I was vacationing in San Francisco with my friend, Anna.  We were exiting a café and for some unknown reason, I shot ahead on my travel scooter and fell off the high curb of the sidewalk into the street.  According to Anna, I was not drunk, sick, excessively tired, or otherwise impaired before this.  It was unexplainable.  I hit my head, began to bleed, and an ambulance was called.

This was all told to me later, as I have no recollection of the accident, any of the trip, or even planning it.  I have blocked the whole experience out.  I have blocked a lot of experiences out.  Even as my memory congeals, much of my life takes place in stories and photographs, but not in the sensations of being there.  I don’t have any flashes of being in the San Francisco hospital for 6 weeks, much of the time in a coma, and I recall very little of my time spent in a rehab hospital in Columbus, OH (where I grew up and my family lives).  I only remember grueling therapy sessions there and one kind nurse, who let me have the whole container of chocolate pudding that was used to help me swallow medications.  I moved in with my mother at the end of the summer, in a place she had rented, but that I thought was her home I didn’t remember.  Slowly, my strength and endurance came back.  I exercised, read, wrote in a journal, and began to re-member – to put mind and body back together.  Yet, I was content to rarely leave my sanctuary.

"Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy," 2011

“Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy,” 2011

In a couple months, I had surgery on my skull to reconstruct the amputation, after which, I had been told, I would improve drastically.  Unfortunately, I had to endure a week in the hospital before I had the surgery, after an anesthesiologist punctured my lungs trying to put an IV in my chest.  But I digress.  I did feel better after my skull was intact, and in just a few weeks, I began teaching an online class, one of which I was supposed to be teaching full time that Fall.  My knowledge of art history, the humanities, and how to teach came right back and, likely, got stronger.  I was able to concentrate and exert authority, more and more over time.  I soon moved back to my home in North Carolina and to my boyfriend, whose name I could now remember.  As 2008 progressed, so did I, and I was determined to no longer put anything off.  I proposed to the man I love and got married, taught full time, and began to write scholarly articles and to paint again.  But I was still lost.

Backing up further…I have been physically disabled since birth, and I have incorporated disability studies as a discipline, as well as my identity as a disabled woman, into my teaching and writing.  I know how to teach myself to do things and how to adapt to do anything I want to do.  I am (was?) independent.  I have traveled internationally, lived in 3 cities, and gotten my PhD.  I was, for better or worse, fearless.  Now I feel anxious taking my scooter to the grocery store.  But the anxiety about injury lessens over time.  The anxiety over being lost is still, and may always be, unbearable.  I can’t sleep through the night, my moods oscillate from high to low without warning, and I can’t remember people, places, and personal things.  I sometimes have to laugh, as, for example, I realize that not everyone looks oddly familiar because I have forgotten them, but that people just look alike.  I can laugh at my loss, at times, while at other times I am consumed by feelings of emptiness and the desire to know what happened, and why.

I have learned many, countless things from my accident, about myself and the world I live in.  But the main thing I have learned is that “lost” and “found” are not absolutes.  They are states of being, always in flux.  They collide, overlap, and intertwine.  Sometimes, they make it a chore to get up in the morning.  And sometimes, they produce accidental masterpieces.

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

The responses of the students to my essay were ones of admiration, respect, and identification.  Many shared with me similar experiences of their own or of others they knew.  I believe students also felt more open with me and shared more of themselves with me and with fellow students in their writing.  They also encouraged me to write more.  I did.  Over the next few years, I drafted four more essays or chapters about my experiences in hospitals and with multiple channels of recovery, including physical, craniosacral, and art therapies.  Eventually, I had a book – a memoir that incorporated research as well as personal narrative.  The structure and range of subjects in the book, I felt, echoed how my brain works; in it, I switch between various subjects of interest to me and forms of writing, I go off on tangents, and often I compose text from fragments of information and memory.

Once I felt the book was nearly completed, I submitted proposals to publishers and got many respectful and complimentary rejections, as I was repeatedly told that they simply did not publish memoirs.  I wanted to see my work assembled and distributed, to complete the project so that I could share my story with others, and to perhaps provide them with hope.  I chose to self-publish with CreateSpace through Amazon.com.

Here is a link to its listing.

I did all the formatting of the manuscript myself, which was, admittedly, a pain; I hired my sister who was a journalist to edit; and I paid a professional to design a cover.  I am proud of the project and hope readers of this blog will be interested in it.  It really epitomizes the intersections between art and life, as well as the various intersections between life and online education.

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer

Dr. Millett-Gallant at her computer