Carol Cole finds calling in second career

by Amy Kingsley

In Hollywood, breasts come in silicone perfection, festooned with pasties, rings, lace, silk and more. Privately they can sport breast pumps or babies. In Carol Cole’s world, they are alternately feathered, green, wax, wrapped in leather and self-nurturing.

‘“It’s the nurturing part that people can’t really deal with,’” says the artist about her work.

She is standing next to two sculptures, one done up in green and pink called ‘“The Garden’” and another, black with white spikes, named ‘“Tarbaby.’” Both depict breasts as nurturing. But the extreme difference in tone between the pieces is intentional.

‘“It’s good to be a person who nurtures other people,’” she says. ‘“There is a dark side of nurturing too, because you can become the enabler.’”

Cole knows all about the positives and negatives of nurturing. Her life, which is reflected in the drawings, embroidery and sculpture around her house, has folded all of it together.

Marriage and family came before Cole started studying art, and the need to raise her children halted her burgeoning art career in the middle of the 1970s. From her experience of nurturing and the need she felt to foster her own identity came the mythology of the Bubble Blower, images of breasts with nipples turned inward.

Now, more than 30 years later, those images and sculptures have been compiled into a book and organized into an exhibit that will open at Salem College on Friday. The exhibit is titled ‘“Through the Flower and Into the Garden’” and the book is simply The Bubble Blower.

Cole depicts breasts clothed in more varied materials than even the most imaginative costumer could conjure. ‘“Introverted Nipple with Lures’” is a mound covered with sequins and hung with fishing lures and regular intervals. The breast refers to her femininity; the lures might hearken back to rural Southern roots.

Cole hails from Philadelphia, Miss., a state distinguished by rich literary tradition and scarred by racial conflict. Both figure into Cole’s work. She entered the University of Mississippi in 1961 ‘— the year before the school admitted James Meredith ‘— intending to study art, but switched to Latin, math and English literature because Abstract Expressionism, which dominated at the time, stumped her.

Literature loomed large in her life and has informed her paintings, several of which refer to Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor.

‘“You could say I’m a frustrated writer.’”

Even though words proved an untenable medium, the need to express herself never left Cole, who learned to draw in Masur Museum art classes in Monroe, La. In those classes she developed her skill doing photorealist paintings. One of those, a depiction of New Orleans, is part of the Mississippi Museum of Art permanent collection.

The next step in her art education was a series of classes with Judy Chicago, Phillip Pearlstein and Lynda Benglis. Benglis introduced Cole to colored pencils, and Pearlstein praised her technical ability. It was Chicago, however, who furthered Cole’s artistic expression most.

During an exercise in which the students depicted different conceptions of themselves, Cole came up with the bubble blower concept.

So, around 1976 Cole started a series of bubble blower drawings. The end of the 1970s also signaled the end of the first part of Cole’s career, when she had to find a way to support her two children.

She let go of art for a while and worked as a computer programmer and consultant. She moved from Jackson, Miss. to Greensboro in 1984 and soon thereafter started her own business, Computer Results Company. She married her current husband in 1988, sold her company in 1990 and got back into art a few years later.

‘“I want people to know that art can nurture a life, that art can enrich life, even if art cannot support a life,’” Cole said.

She had to devote time to her computer business to feed her family, but the lessons she learned about self-nurturing never left her. As an adult, she challenged herself by learning to swim. The anxiety she had felt inspired another project: Finally Everything As Remembered Simultaneously (FEARS).

Her media have included drawing, painting, sculpture, and now embroidery. Stitching was the first original art she did, back when her children were still small and before the art classes. Now she has come full circle: her newest embroideries are produced by a sewing machine cabled to a computer where she scans drawings.

The computer sits in an office cluttered with paperwork and art materials. Cole knows her way around and finds the things she seeks without much searching. In the other room, breast sculptures sit in varying degrees of readiness for the impending transport to Winston-Salem.

Hanging on opposite sides of the office wall, clear of the clutter, are two Chardin prints given to Cole by her mother.

‘“There is the young man blowing bubbles,’” Cole says, ‘“and then this is the kitchen maid.’”

She points from one portrait to the other.

‘“Now, which one would you want to be?’”

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