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Museum: Background Information


Walker Art Center



Institution Walker Art Center
Willie Cole was born in Sommerville, New Jersey, in 1955. After studying art in Boston and New York City, he returned to New Jersey, where he continues to live and work today. When he was a child, both his grandmother and great-grandmother worked as housekeepers and often brought their irons home for him to fix. When he moved into his first studio in 1980, he had at least 15 broken irons and began to incorporate them into his work. This object, which most people would consider a simple domestic tool, is a potent symbol for Cole as an African-American artist. For him, the iron brings to mind domestic servitude, African rituals of scarification (the making of superficial scratches or incisions in the skin), and an African heritage of "branding," in which tribes are identified by shields or masks.

Cole has found many ways to use the household iron in his work. He makes sculpture by rearranging disassembled parts into forms that recall traditional African sculpture. In other works, he uses the heat of the iron to scorch a surface, allowing its shape and the pattern of steam holes to create decorative forms. In the process, the artist realized that each type of iron left its own unique imprint. The large woodcut Stowage borrows from this technique, as Cole employs real objects to make the print, although ink is used instead of heat.

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Type: Commentary, online content
Source: Willie Cole, Stowage (1997), from the website Global Positioning: Exploring Contemporary World Art, 2003.
Rights: Copyright 2003 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: March 1, 2009