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Artist Kevin Cole Emphasizes Education and Voting


Arkansas native son Kevin Cole was the featured speaker for the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame Distinguished Laureate Lecture Series Thursday night, which also kicked off the 2024 Artist Talk season at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.

Dr. Danyell Crutchfield Cummings, chair of the Distinguished Laureate Lecture Series, introduced Cole, a Pine Bluff native, to the audience to discuss his 40-year career as an award-winning artist and professor.

Symbols in Cole’s Work

Currently based in Atlanta, much of Cole’s work is characterized by a necktie or scarf motif, which symbolizes a tree near his grandfather’s house in Jefferson County, Arkansas, on which African Americans were lynched on their way to go vote in some cases with the necktie they were wearing at the time. Cole told the audience that this tree and this method of racially motivated violence against African Americans is documented in the Lynching Memorial as part of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

He also discussed his Gerrymandering Series, originally spurred on by his research into voter suppression in counties in Georgia. The large-scale series features the shapes of Southern states where Black votes are suppressed. Neckties again come into play in the etching on the aluminum canvas, which also has dirt from the respective state.

His Ballot Box Series also focuses on voting in the South. “I asked friends, ‘Ask your parents and grandparents about their experience trying to vote,’” he said. Many of their stories are represented in this series.

Importance of Public Art

In addition to his three-dimensional work characterized by bent wood and aluminum, Cole is known for his large-scale public artwork, including the Coca-Cola Centennial Olympic Mural for the 1996 Olympic Games and a 55-foot-long installation for the Atlanta International Airport. The former project took him two years, six months, 17 days, 14 hours and 32 minutes, he told the audience. He is currently the only American artist represented in the international concourse at the Atlanta airport.

“Doing the mural for the Olympics gave me international exposure,” he said.

Although Cole does many commission-based works, he emphasizes the importance of public art. “Public art will be there for a while after you’re gone,” he said. He also drew tongue-in-cheek attention to his T-shirt, which read “former dead artists,” encouraging audience members to “support me now.”

Each One, Teach One

Cole received his B.S. from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, an M.A. in art education from the University of Illinois at Urbana, and an M.F.A. from Northern Illinois University, where he was a Rhoden Smith Scholar. Dr. Laurence Alexander, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and his wife, Veronica, were among those in attendance Thursday night.

Although Cole jokingly recounted the story of how he took his education to the next level — “They said, ‘Go get your Master’s. I said, ‘I don’t play golf’”— education and teaching clearly have been integral to Cole’s career and his mission.

“I chose to teach,” he said. “They instilled in me, ‘each one, teach one.’”

After Cole’s lecture and interview with Little Rock artist and gallery owner Garbo Hearne, audience members had the opportunity to ask Cole questions. One person asked him to describe his “why.” Cole said, “My why is number one, you pray and ask God, ‘Why are you here?’ I know I was put here to teach and make art.

“It means a lot to me to come back to Arkansas,” he added. “It can be the land of opportunity.”

The Distinguished Laureate Lecture Series, in its 13th year, hosts events each February in honor of Black History Month to engage its inductees with Arkansans, showcasing their talents and accomplishments through lectures, workshops, seminars, receptions or concerts. Cole was a 2018 inductee in the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

At the end of the lecture, Charles Stewart, chairman and CEO of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, presented Cole with a crystal plaque in recognition of his distinguished laureate presentation. “We have an opportunity to bring [the distinguished laureates] back and let them share their gifts with you, the public that supports us in such a magnificent way,” Stewart said.

More information about Kevin Cole can be found on his website and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

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April Fatula is student publications adviser and instructor in Harding University's Department of Communication. She lives in Searcy with her husband and three children and dreams alternately of being a travel writer and drinking her coffee while it's still hot.

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