Cole is a queer mixed media artist who renders the human form through collage-like abstraction. In both her sculptures and illustrations, she layers colors, textures, and fabrics that reference her imaginative childhood. With “Dolls,” a series of creepy-cute sculptures assembled with a medley of found fabric, she nods to her obsession with G.I. Joe action figures. As a kid, when she wasn’t using them to act out entire movies in her head: “I was always taking them apart and getting in trouble,” she says, from the Brooklyn studio where she lives and works. “Which is kind of what I do with sculpture, breaking apart the denim to get to the finer threads.”
For NO BAR, The Standard, East Village’s new queer bar opening Feb 20, Cole expanded scenes from “Black Cowboys” into large-scale mirror decals. They stretch across the bar’s back wall, colorfully hinting at mischief and adventure. The Standard spoke to Cole about her use of color, the challenges she encountered designing for the space, and cowboys as American symbols.
How did your interest in black cowboys start?
I got into black cowboys because a lot of their stories were stolen. I came across some videos on YouTube and started doing research. There were never black cowboys in old movies, and a lot of their stories were actually stolen by Hollywood because they couldn't make black people look strong at the time.
If you google “black cowboys” there are a shit ton of photos, from vintage black-and-white to more modern images
Symbolically, there is something so quintessentially American about cowboys.
All of those old west stories are about romanticism, sleeping outside under the stars with your horse and your cows and you're free, even though the work is hard. Even I'm romanticizing it, but in 2019 it's more of an aesthetic approach.
There’s a pretty queer aesthetic to cowboys.
Exactly, a “queerality” I like to say. I was always been interested in the idea of cowboys with their denim and leather.
Did you draw these images from photos or your imagination?
I sourced most of the photos online. If you google “black cowboys” there are a shit ton of photos, from vintage black-and-white to more modern images. Then I mix them, meaning I take elements from different pictures—a cowboy bucking here, a fence in the back there—and start collaging them, layer by layer. There’s no narrative to the arrangement; it’s definitely more abstract. And then I start drawing in Illustrator.
What was the process like adapting this project to a space like NO BAR?
I basically turned these cowboys into decals, which was actually pretty complex because you have to put stickers through a crazy process to print. It started as an even more complicated image with a lot of other details in the back, but I had to simplify. You don't want it to be too busy.
I think about blackness when I'm doing illustrations because it's like, how are colored people colored?
Or how will the gays be able to see themselves in the mirrors?
Right? So, you'll be able to see the mirror through some of the cows.
How do you decide which colors to use?
I think about blackness when I'm doing illustrations because it's like, how are colored people colored? Not all of the faces of the cowboys are black. Sometimes the way I color is a bit of green and blue. Sometimes it's sienna and sometimes it’s yellow. Or you might have orange hands but a bluish face.
As a mixed media artist, is there one medium you feel most connected to?
I've been drawing since I was a kid. If anything traumatic was happening and I needed to calm my mind, I was always doodling. In the 4th or 5th grade, I had this white composition book where I drew these battles between the potato people and the ant people. I drew helicopters and tanks and underground layers and sky warriors. One day, the teacher took it away and never gave it back to me. To this day, I constantly think about it. Like damn, I wish I had that composition book.
How do you want people to interact with your work at NO BAR?
I think about it more as being part of the environment, but I want people to interact with admiration. Do the colors make you happy? Or do the images make you surprised? I feel like you don't really see black cowboys that often, you know?