American artist Willie Cole on making art from discarded objects

Contemporary conceptual and visual artist Willie Cole discusses the appearance of steam irons as leitmotif in his art.

by Shailaja Tripathi Published on : Oct 21, 2020

A steam iron is, well, a steam iron for many of us. Two decades ago, when getting your clothes ironed by the washerman was not the norm, it would be a weekend task in every family to iron and ready school uniforms and office wear for the next week. So, an iron is a utility object present in almost every home, even if it is not used that regularly.

For Willie Cole it is much more than that. In the last three decades, it has registered for itself a seminal place in Cole’s art practice. It emerges as an expression of domestic labour by women of colour, slave trade and Yoruba traditions. As a printmaker, Cole uses different printmaking techniques to achieve impressions of steam irons. If in one place it stands like an icon, elsewhere it assumes to be a statue of a god. In yet another instance, its scorched face reminds one of an African mask.

Artist Willie Cole | STIRworld
Artist Willie Cole Image: Caridad Cole

When asked about the process of discovering and rediscovering an object like steam iron, Cole says, “This is not a discovery. This is acceptance. It is fuelled by the awareness of the history, and the physical characteristics of the object(s). I make a list of everything an object suggests. Then I make associations”.

Cole lives and works in New Jersey. He pursued BFA at The School of Visual Arts in New York in 1976. Cole’s mother and grandmother were housekeepers and often asked him to repair their steam irons. The artist, acutely aware of this background, often makes this context central to the narrative. Each one of his prints made from crushed and hammered ironing boards in ‘Beauties’ held last year at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in the US, were named after a woman from the artist’s cultural and ancestral history.

Prints made from crushed and hammered ironing boards from Willie Cole’s exhibition “Beauties” | Willie Cole | STIRworld
Prints made from crushed and hammered ironing boards from Willie Cole’s exhibition Beauties Image: Courtesy of Willie Cole

The very first iron Cole used was an iron run over by a car on the street near his studio in Newark in 1988. It reminded him of an African mask. That moment set him off on a life-long journey to unravel its spiritual, domestic and physical aspects.

Cole has been successful in locating his African-American heritage in the domestic and physical contexts of steam irons. The impressions of steam irons as scorches in his work reflect it quite well.

‘The Ogun Sisters’, a screen print by Willie Cole | STIRworld
The Ogun Sisters, a screen print by Willie Cole Image: Courtesy of Willie Cole

The #BlackLivesMatter movement gave yet another context to the sculptor and printmaker. “Many years ago, a NY Times writer said that my scorches represented the various skin tones of black and brown people. #BLM has given me a chance to present the scorch in that context. One of my galleries, in response to #BLM, put together an exhibition called A Night in America. For it I created a grid of scorches with the names of the black and brown people who have been killed in police custody under each scorch,” says Cole.

The artist does not work with just irons and ironing boards. The 1955-born artist has also reimagined several other daily mundane objects like high-heeled shoes, plastic water bottles, hair dryers and bicycle parts. The artist says he felt inspired after watching his son playing with his Transformer toys. Some of his shoe sculptures like Downtown Goddess, Chair and others can be seen in Virtual Shoe Museum.

A work made from discarded shoes | Willie Cole | STIRworld
A work made from discarded shoes Image: Willie Cole

The use of discarded objects hints at consumerism but also allude to his love for nature. “I respect nature. I live in the woods. I am a vegan. I support a charity called Wells Bring Hope that digs wells in drought-stricken areas of the world,” explains Cole.

Currently, Cole is finding succor in painting. Amidst the lush green surroundings of his abode, Cole has retraced his steps to the medium which was foremost in his art practice for years. “The paintings have been on my mind for years. I had to get them out to make room for something new. Those horizontal strokes represent the energy waves we live in - Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microwaves, 5G, plus I missed painting,” he says.

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