Anxious Objects:
Willie Cole's Favorite Brands

Try This Yourself

Found on pages 7 and 8 in the Educator Packet (link at right).


The following projects are suggested to introduce students and groups to Cole’s techniques, influences, and ways of thinking as well as expanding their own knowledge of what to look for in Cole’s work. Students can work on these projects before or following a visit to the museum. Doing projects both before and after a visit can generate deeper reflection and understanding of Cole’s works individually and collectively.

  • Found Objects: Cole began making art by using discarded objects given by friends or found in garage sales (“found objects”) to assemble a piece. Cole related these pieces to his own personal experiences or history. (For example, irons represent the domestic sphere of his mother’s home as well as his childhood job as the household handyman.) Collect a number of “found objects” and create an assemblage that relates to both the objects and your own experience.
  • Transformations: shapes and objects in Cole’s artwork obtain multiple meanings. He transforms discards into art: an iron represents a ship, ironing boards act as shields, and bicycle parts resemble African-inspired headdresses. Guide your group through the process of transformation,
    each taking a simple everyday object and turning that object into something else. To take this project further, let each person give his/her transformation a message: for example, a cigarette becomes a gun, an iron becomes a slave ship. Older groups may develop this transformation into many steps and then simplify their transformation into one piece.
    * Look up the word “abstract” in a dictionary and discuss how Cole’s transformations are abstractions.
  • Repeated Shapes: Cole repeats shapes to emphasize their physical quality or to form a completely new object. He uses the repeated shape of the iron or shoe to imitate the mandala form. He gathers shoes to create a chair and hair dryers to create a mask. Give each person in your group a set of the same shape (or have them create one of their own) to form their own compositions by combining the same shapes in different ways.
  • Influences: Cole has been inspired by traditional Asian and African sculptures. Online or from magazines, find a number of images to mix and match to assemble your own version of the card game “Memory,” relating artwork from elsewhere with Cole’s. Consider how these traditions might influence your own work. Choose a picture or ad from a magazine and re-create this image based on traditional African and Asian styles.
    * Take a docent tour of the Cole exhibition (“Anxious Objects”) at the Cantor Arts Center. Also, explore other galleries at the Cantor Arts Center to find other artistic traditions that relate to Cole’s art.
  • Creation and Inspiration: Though Cole’s work relies heavily on African and Asian influences, strong influences also come from the modern art world. Cole looks to the early modern art of Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp as well as to styles closer of his own time: Pop Art and
    Minimalism. Cole especially draws from Jasper Johns, a contemporary American artist whose work borders on Pop Art, who once described the artistic process by saying:

    Take an object
    Do something to it
    Do something else to it
    Do something else to it

    Take a canvas
    Put a mark on it
    Put another mark on it
    Put another mark on it

    Make something
    Find a use for it
    Invent a function
    Find an object

Have individuals or partners choose one of these three instructions and have them create their own art piece inspired by Johns’ quote and Cole’s visual representation of this technique.

  • Wordplay/Acronyms: In America I (1993), Cole listed the letters “AMERICA” across the top of an American flag. He then used the letters of the words AMERICA as the first letters of a series of sentences that, for Cole, capture the diverse and radical components of the American identity. Choose a word that helps define the group you are working with (DIVERSITY, ART, CREATIVITY, etc.) and have each participant come up with a sentence, using the letters of the word as the first letters of each word in the sentence. Have participants create a sentence, and another, and another, as quickly as possible. Much of Cole’s artwork comes from improvisation and random
  • Follow-Up Writing Activity: (during or after the museum trip) The title of this exhibition, “Anxious Objects,” refers to the state of transition that Cole takes his materials through. The materials for Cole’s work, rescued from discarded items, are now admired in art museums.
    Furthermore, what once was a shoe is now part of a chair! Objects Cole uses are individually identifiable but in assemblage become something else. Have your group imagine what it would be like to be a selected object. Then, invite each person to write a paragraph or short story about a certain object or material that Cole has used as though the object were speaking for itself. Some
    questions they might want to consider are: How does this object feel about its identity and changing function? Where did that object come from? How does it feel now? What does it think about its new function? New place?
    What does it think about all the people who come and stare at it everyday?

Artist's Biography

Artist's Influences

Try This Yourself

Exhibition Educator Packet
Download PDF (760 KB)

Activities and Discussion (password: cardinal)