Kevin Cole, "Danci with Boogaloo Beat 1II," from the "Fragments of Frozen Sound" series, mixed media on paper, 2010. (For Brenau University)
Kevin Cole, "Danci with Boogaloo Beat 1II," from the "Fragments of Frozen Sound" series, mixed media on paper, 2010. (For Brenau University)

Atlanta-based Artist Kevin Cole Addresses Racial, Social Issues Through Art

Oct. 6, 2017
Michael McPeek

Will Visit Brenau University on Thursday, Oct. 12

Kevin Cole’s artwork is inspired by the people from his past: his family, his friends, his old art teachers. Few have inspired the African-American, Atlanta-based artist more than his grandparents.

“I’m originally from Arkansas, and my grandfather lived in Terry, Arkansas, just outside Star City,” Cole said. “So when I turned 18, he wanted me to go vote. I didn’t want to do it. He was 91 years old, but he knelt down, drew me a map and told me to go stand in a spot on his property.

“I did and came back. Then he told me African-Americans were lynched by their neckties in that spot on their way to vote.”

Cole currently has an art show titled “Conversation with My Past,” in Presidents Gallery on the Brenau University historic Gainesville campus. His pieces deal with topics surrounding racial and social issues.

“This is more or less a 30-year survey show,” Cole said. “It’s how the work evolved from one thing, one content to another, while keeping some of the same icons and motifs I have used in my work.”

One of the motifs immediately noticeable in Cole’s work? Neckties.

Cole said his work is meant to express a balance between reflecting on such dark, hard moments from the past and looking hopefully and positively to the future. Neckties, he said, are also a symbol of successful, hardworking people.

“The work moves beyond a single idea,” he said. “It becomes about celebration. If you look at the works, they all have positive titles.”

Cole will visit Brenau from 5:30-7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, for a gallery reception and artist talk. Presidents Gallery is in Simmons Visual Arts Center at the corner of Washington Street and Golden Tiger Way. The artist talk will be held next door in Pearce Auditorium.

“We have had the opportunity to share the exhibition with several Brenau classes, and we have more tours on the horizon,” said Brenau Galleries Director Nichole Rawlings. “The honesty with which Kevin Cole approaches difficult issues of race and social justice has resonated with our viewers and sparked conversations about the relevancy of these issues even today. I look forward to Kevin being on campus and having the opportunity to speak to our students and community about his process and the vision he has for his work.”

Outside racial and social issues, Cole’s work is also inspired by moments his grandmother says changed their family and the nation forever: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

“I was supposed to be there on Sept. 11, 2001,” said Cole. “I was supposed to be right there in New York City. I woke up that morning and decided I wasn’t going to go.”

His friend, meanwhile, was in the city that day. He sent Cole one photo, following the attacks on the World Trade Center, of a child clinging to a piece of aluminum and tar paper.

“So I started working with aluminum and tar paper, as my own protest against the actions of September 11,” he said.

Four years later, Cole’s friends, family and fraternity brothers in New Orleans were rocked by Hurricane Katrina. He drove to Louisiana to help, collecting debris along the path of the hurricane. “I started a process of mapping the storm in terms of the Ninth Ward,” he said. “I used the materials and necktie shapes, weaving them in. It’s important to me that the medium I use provides content.”

Cole also digs into the “relationship between sight, sound and color.” He is specifically inspired by African-American music, including gospel, rap, blues, jazz and R&B, and listens to it as he creates. But these moments from his past are the biggest influence on his work, something he hopes visitors to his show at Brenau will take away.

“I hope people see that while I start with a subject that’s not pleasant, I move past it,” he said. “I want them to see how far we’ve come as a people but also know we still have so much farther to go.”

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