N.J. artist Willie Cole sees something in ordinary objects others might discard

Willie Cole’s artistic training began in the 1960s: with his dollar-a-week allowance, the Newark native visited S. Klein’s Department Store and bought model kits of plastic cars and superheroes.

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

Willie Cole’s artistic training began in the 1960s: with his dollar-a-week allowance, the Newark native visited S. Klein’s Department Store and bought model kits of plastic cars and superheroes.

He’d put them together according to the directions — but that was just for starters. Cole would make them his own by adding thread, beads, toothpicks, straws and that plastic apparatus that held all the parts together in the first place.

The world-renowned artist went on to study at Boston University School of Fine Arts, the School of Visual Arts and the Art Students League, but the basic building blocks from his childhood creations are still evident in his constructions today, whether he’s using irons, matches, hair dryers, bicycle parts or women’s shoes.

In E Pluribus Unum, on view in the Domestic Arts Building at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton through Sept. 23, we get to see some of his recent work in plastic water bottles and toilet bowl parts.

“H2O” is an authentically-sized automobile made from 3,000 plastic bottles, complete with an interior and a motor. The title refers to the drinkable water that has been turned into a consumer item, sold in plastic bottles made from the same refined oil that fuels cars. And, like the car, drinking water from plastic bottles pollutes air and creates waste.

The title piece is an inverted pyramid made from 2,000 bottles. Each bottle contains a pink or gold image of a Buddha printed on clear nylon film. Cole lives by the Buddhist principle of oneness — the belief that all things are connected, and everything is one.

E Pluribus Unum — literally translated as “out of many, one” — refers to Cole’s way of working, combining multiples of an object until the meaning of the whole transcends that of the parts, becoming something new.

“The Worrier,” for example — a bronze piece with a warm black patina — looks like a Shona sculpture from Zimbabwe. A small black figure with exaggerated features is hunched over, elbows on knees, eyes closed, fretting over something profound. This bronze was made from an assemblage of shoes — square toed, chunk heeled, clog-like — that suggest new meaning.

“I didn’t actually choose the shoe. I like to think that the shoe chose me… I saw it and it allowed me to see it so we came together,” said Cole.

For many years, Cole worked flat, in pencil on paper. When his 11-year-old son amassed a sneaker collection, Cole knew he wanted to work with it, but needed a greater supply so went to the thrift store. There he discovered countless pairs of women’s shoes with heels that worked better for his purposes. The heels could become teeth, for example.

“Downtown Goddess,” also a shoe assemblage cast in bronze, patinaed an ivory color, looks like a sassy rabbit. She has acquired her power from the shoes’ former wearers, according to the gallery label.

The shoes “have a history and a personality that has made them appear the way they do,” says Cole.

The objects Cole uses in multiples help to distinguish him from other assemblage artists. Although not on view here, he has made works in many media based on the iron, a reference to slavery, women’s work and oppression. He first discovered an iron in the street that had been run over, and he saw it in a new way. He has printed textiles with scorched irons, suggesting African fabrics, as well as beasts and faces from the iron.

“When a piece gets to a point where all the parts are put together in the right way, it has a power of its own and you know not to mess with it,” he has said.

Throughout the gallery are areas of astroturf where animals graze. These animals are actually toilets, sawn in half and turned on their side, glazed to resemble the pattern of a Holstein. Some are black and white, but Cole is unafraid to use blues and purples in lieu of the black.

These were produced about a decade ago when Cole participated in an artist residency program at Kohler Kitchen and Bath in Wisconsin. There, he discovered a warehouse of defective products. An artist sees something in common objects that others may discard. Taking Marcel Duchamp’s readymades a step further, and influenced by the dairy farms surrounding him in Wisconsin, Cole created this series, “Two-Faced Bull Shitters.”


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.