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Artist Willie Cole Finds Inspiration in the Soles of Shoes

Willie Cole began working with shoes when his 12-year-old son gave him a collection of his sneakers he’d been saving. Shoes were interesting objects for Cole, and he began to look for more. On a shopping trip to his local Salvation Army, high heels in particular really sparked his interest.

Cole was familiar with shoe forms. He had studied fashion design in high school and even considered going to design school before pursuing sculpture. Shoes were very evocative for him. There were some emotions that the heels elicited—submission, pain and pleasure—and some basic forms that Cole was able to identify, like a point and a curve. “When I look at the shapes, they have countless suggestions for me,” Cole said.

The shapes in the heels began to lend themselves to different body parts, and Cole began working with images from African art, a visual culture that is always present in his mind. He uses the inherent forms of the shoes to create kneeling figures and expressive masks.

A work called “The Sole Sitter,” shows a seated figure holding its chin. The bronze sculpture is cast entirely from heels, chunky clogs forming the legs and inverted platforms making up the arms.

In addition to African-inspired figures and masks, Cole also uses shoes to craft works in other categories: his animal creatures are very deliberate, intricate creations, while his blossoms and thrones have a more iterative design and use thousands of pairs of shoes in their construction.

As Cole makes more shoe sculptures, more shoes come his way: Goodwill stores give him footwear they haven’t sold, designers donate pairs, and even individuals offer to give him their shoes. At one point, Cole purchased all the high heels from two thrift stores in Atlanta for 50 cents a pound and acquired millions of shoes.

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Working with used shoes is not only inexpensive and sustainable; the wear on the shoes and the story of the previous owner is also key to the meaning of Cole’s work. Cole used to have a female studio assistant who would walk around the studio and tell him the stories of the different shoes, saying, ‘this is a wedding shoe, this is a prom night shoe, this is a hooker shoe.’ The stories of the shoes’ owners made them more than just a raw material, he said.

When discussing his work, Cole placed emphasis on the fact that the shoe has a sole, both literally, and in the sense of the homophone, metaphorically. He said that the shoe has a “recorded memory” and explained how looking at the soles of shoes, they take on different color patterns from the pressure different strides put on different parts of the shoe.

“Human beings are dropping particles everywhere they walk,” he said. “The essence of every wearer still exists in the shoe, as a particle.”

Cole is working on presenting these people, their energy or spirit, in his work.

Cole will present Aquahallic in Boston University’s 808 Gallery (September 24-December 4). The exhibit presents a series of chandeliers and a 1959 El Dorado, made completely out of repurposed plastic water bottles.