Artist Talk: Willie Cole in Conversation with Adrienne Wheeler

June 8, 6:00 - 7:30pm
Express Newark, 54 Halsey St., 2nd Floor
Newark, NJ 07102

Willie Cole (left) and Adrienne Wheeler (right)

Join Express Newark for a conversation with Newark-born artists Willie Cole and Adrienne Wheeler about Cole's recent works, Spirit-Catcher and Lumen-less Lantern.

More about the works

Spirit Catcher and Lumen-less Lantern, by Newark native Willie Cole, are two large-scale, chandelier-like sculptures made up of more than 3,000 plastic water bottles held together by metal wire. Cole recently created these works to address Newark’s dual environmental crisis of 2019: the lead contamination of drinking water in aging lead pipes and the opening of citywide centers to distribute water through thousands of single-use plastic bottles. While the water crisis exposed racialized health disparities in New Jersey by revealing which neighborhoods have and do not have access to safe water, the city’s sharing of thousands of cases of bottled water as a short-term solution further underscored our planet’s plastic problem. As a result of these crises, 15,000 of the city’s households were at risk for lead poisoning; meanwhile, the vast majority of plastics, including water bottles, are often made from toxic chemicals, particularly fossil fuels, that are harmful to all life. Difficult to recycle, plastics are responsible for 3.4 percent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions—they’re a major contributor to another ecological and social crisis: climate change. 

In order to draw our attention to these crises, Cole has for decades built a practice of transforming everyday objects—ironing boards, shoes, hair dryers, bicycle parts, and other discarded items—into art. By invoking what he calls a “primitive aesthetic on a modern object,” he applies the ancient craft of basket weaving to the 20th-century form of the plastic water bottle. As a result, his upcycling of these bottles awakens us to environmental threats while also demonstrating that art can disrupt these catastrophic cycles. As part of his 2022-2023 artist-in-residence at Express Newark, Cole—for the first time in his career—has invited community members into his artmaking process and his space (Express Newark transformed its Paul Robeson Gallery into his open studio for the year). Through this communal practice, and in the gathering thousands of used water bottles from throughout Newark to make his sculptures, Cole’s installations move our collective imagination beyond the reductive use of the singular bottle and into a deeper reflection of our precious resources and of what we can accomplish together as a community. 

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