MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Columbia High School welcomed Willie Cole, renowned sculptor and artist, to speak to various classes in the arts department on Jan. 9. Recognized primarily for his iron print work, Cole has had his pieces exhibited all over the country in many galleries, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as some international museums.
Cole began his career, which is heavily influenced by African and African-American culture, in his hometown of Newark, where he used to make a living as a portrait artist on the streets of the “Brick City.” In addition to his work with iron prints, he makes sculptures out of easily accessible and reused materials, such as old women’s shoes and plastic bottles.
“I don’t know (CHS) that well but it’s very possible that I exhibited somewhere around here in the early ’70s because I would do all the community shows at that time — art in the park or something like that,” Cole said of his first time at CHS this year.
Cole explained that although publicly his artistic identity revolves around reusing materials in sculptures, he does a lot of other work privately as well. He believes that every object has an identity and a story that can enhance his artistic endeavors.
“I do a lot of portraits still,” he said. “I never exhibit that stuff because the art world discovered me as an artist who made things out of found materials.”
In his presentation to the CHS students, Cole focused on his inspiration for the pieces he was displaying.
“The inspiration for the bottles happened three and a half or four years ago and I’m eager to get into something else now, but it hasn’t hit me yet,” he said, adding that once he begins using one kind of material, he pushes himself to continue working with it in fresh ways. For instance, though he still sculpts with women’s shoes, he has now shifted his focus to animation projects using those sculptures; and, though he continues working with prints, he now uses them in fashion. “I’m always interested in learning and doing new things and I’m easily inspired, so it just kind of happens without thought.”
According to Cole, he often works on large projects that require the use of assistants, a process he very much enjoys.
“The assistants work with raw material kind of stuff, they prepare the parts. It’s good to work with a group, I feel, it teaches me how to be instructive,” he said. “I can’t do everything by myself in a decent amount of time.”
Cole’s advice for aspiring artists is simply for them to devote themselves to being an artist and being confident enough to pursue art as a career.
“If a young student wants to be an artist, they have to decide that they are already an artist,” he said, adding that they need to devote all their efforts to their dream.
This piece was written by CHS senior Xavier Silva and the photographs were taken by CHS senior Maya Cruz.