no labels [or celebrating Oneness with Willie Cole]

Sculpture “With a Heart of Gold” by Willie Cole, photo by Perry Garvin

I had the distinct pleasure of viewing some amazing artwork by artist, Willie Cole, at the Frye recently. I took my summer camp students to the exhibit and later, had the honor of hearing him speak and shaking his hand. His art is political, spiritual, humorous and very dynamic. It defies labels and I think he probably likes it that way.

He is funny, charming, engaging and very humble. I am so glad I got to meet him. When I told him how much my girls loved his art he replied, “Kids always get what I do. I think it’s because my 12 year-old daughter is my best friend”. How lovely is that?

Here are some notes that I took while he spoke. He said that art making is very much a “subconscious process” for him. He said “The energy flows. My job is to be open to what comes.” I can relate to that very much.

He was once mentored by a Nairobi priest who told him to, “Make something and tell it what to do. Let it go do that.” Willie humorously said that one piece was told to “go pay the bills”. I just love that.

The thing that I was most moved by and which I have since quoted several times is this: Willie was asked by a gentleman in the audience how he felt he fit into the “African American Art Movement”. Willie very respectfully said, “I don’t. Artists transcend labels. I don’t know many European artists who are known by their ethnicity”. He went on to say, “If you want to conquer something, label it. In fact, I don’t really like the word ‘artist’. I prefer ‘perceptual engineer'”. That just makes me smile.

He said he is, “Inspired by everything.” He wonders “Where do things cross? Where do the conquests and the settlements come together?” He said “It’s not about the objects, it’s about the Spirit of the object. All things are one thing.” He also mentioned “Synchronized moments and energy”. He said, “If you line up five objects in a line and look at them from the right perspective, you see one thing”. (I LOVE THAT!)

On artmaking:

“Doing commissioned pieces brings balance”

“With sculpture, I just play. I start with a pile of things and see what they want to be.”

“Before I had an art dealer, I wanted to live all my dreams at once and got nowhere.” (I can relate to that!)

“I was told to sleep with pieces before I let them go”.

He also told a story similar to this one from Yoruban Mythology about Eshu Elegba which I loved. Eshu Elegba is at once a messenger, holder of power and authority and guardian. He is associated with disorder and destiny as well. Willie referred to him as a “Master of Potentiality”.

Eshu was walking down the road one day, wearing a hat that was red on one side and blue on the other. Sometime after he departed, the villagers who had seen him began arguing about whether the stranger’s hat was blue or red. The villagers on one side of the road had only been capable of seeing the blue side, and the villagers on the other side had only been capable of seeing the red half. They nearly fought over the argument, until Eshu came back and cleared the mystery, teaching the villagers about how one’s perspective can alter one’s perception of reality, and can be easily fooled.

Yes, perspective is a huge issue in this world. We can believe in the Oneness of Life, or we can choose to believe that there is some kind of schism between us and others or everything. I think Willie Cole is on the right track by refusing to accept labels. We sort and parse and label to divide and conquer.

I choose to swim in the world of the Divine Matrix and celebrate the Oneness of life.

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