A Contemporary Mother

Greensboro artist Carol Cole finds nurturing through art and home

By Maria Johnson

Photographs by John Gessner


Wearing a halo of gray curls, which radiates her considerable energy, Carol Cole throws open the doors of her heart and her home with equal freedom.

So you do the natural thing. You step inside the modern, geometric nest for a chat and a gander.

You gawk and swivel at the rectangular spaces, taking in planes of glass and concrete and white walls slathered with contemporary art.

Art, art, art, art, art.

Drawings. Paintings. Sculptures. Mixed media.

On walls. On pedestals. On tables. On shelves.

Works made by Cole. Works collected by Cole.

They draw you closer, tickle your cerebral cortex — seat of reasoning and judgment — and tug at your smile muscles.

There are a lot of nipples here.

Like, a lot.

But these breasts are not peep show material. They’re provocative in another way. They signify nurture, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes painful, often overlooked.

“People don’t value nurture,” says Cole. “We don’t value the people who take care of us.”

The collection also tells the personal story of Cole, who has spent a lifetime nurturing art, first as a creator and later as artist, collector and philanthropist.

In the past 30 years, she has nourished emerging talent and venues, becoming a mainstay on the contemporary art scene locally and nationally.

“There are very few artists in New York who are not aware of who she is,” says Paddy Johnson, an art critic and founding editor of the NYC-based blog Art F City.  “I would call her a mother of contemporary art.”

The evidence hangs in Cole’s airy home.

“The whole thing is an installation,” says Cole, who is brisk at age 74.

Now, the public can see a sample of the art that she and her husband, Seymour Levin, live with daily.

An exhibit, Carol Cole: Cast a Clear Light, opened earlier this month at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum.

The Weatherspoon, a stronghold of contemporary art, occupies a front row seat in Cole’s heart. She is a past president of the board, and she retains a lifetime non-voting seat. She has bought and donated several works to the museum. She has hosted social events and put up Weatherspoon guests in her home.

The museum embraces Cole’s contributions, but the show isn’t flattery, says Emily Stamey, Weatherspoon’s curator of exhibits and co-curator of Cast a Clear Light.

“This is not a project we’re doing because Carol lives and works in Greensboro — or because we love her, although we do. This is an incredibly compelling collection of art. The first time I went to her house, I was completely blown away. It seemed to me that it needed to be in a museum exhibition so more people could see it.”

The show corrals 24 of Cole’s own works, arranged chronologically, and 62 works by other artists, including sculptors Lynda Benglis, Nancy Grossman, Willie Cole, Niki de Saint Phalle and Marisol Escobar; and painter Lee Lozano.

The exhibit also includes a piece called Midnite Show, a backside view of a nude jester on stage, by playwright/painter Tennessee Williams, a favorite author of Cole’s.

“I feel like I know his characters,” she says. “There’s reality in that Southern Gothic thing.”

She grew up in a volatile place and time.

Cole was a student at the University of Mississippi in 1962 when James Meredith became the first black student to enroll. Most students didn’t mind, she says, but outsiders did. A French journalist was killed in the rioting.

Cole was 22.

Two years later, the bodies of three young civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman  — were found outside of Cole’s hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

“That changed me,” she says. “I was shocked that anything like that could happen in my hometown.”

By then, Cole had graduated (she wrapped up a Latin-math-English literature triple major in three years), married and moved to New Orleans, where her husband was in medical school.

Cole had thought about majoring in art in college but dropped the idea after struggling with Abstract Expressionism in Art 101.

“I couldn’t draw an orange like it tasted,” she says.

At age 27, as the mom of two young sons, she took another run at art, studying from time to time with accomplished artists around the country. She tinkered with photorealism and gradually loosened her style.

One of her early works, Zinnia, which appears in the Weatherspoon exhibit, shows her willingness to play with color and form.

Her work grew increasingly abstract as she grappled with a troubled personal life.

“I was desperate,” she says.

She launched a series called the Bubble Blower, breast-like domes with inverted nipples that symbolized her withdrawal, even as she tried to sustain others.

“I was the mother of everyone,” says Cole.

She initiated two more series — one abbreviated as F.E.A.R.S., the other called Anti-Nothingness Image — before taking her sons and leaving her 14-year marriage to the doctor in the late 1970s.

“I left with good reason,” she says.

Cole entered the work force. She relied on her math skills, programming IBM mainframe computers for a bank. While married, she had taken computer language classes, as well as art classes.

Harmonizing the logical left side of her brain with the emotional right side was critical to her survival, she says.

“I was in the left brain, the safe side, for most of my life . . . My art was all a part of embracing my right brain, which was emotions, fears, colors, letting people know me. It was art that made me realize my humanness,” she says.

“I really feel like it’s important for artists to be in touch with both sides of the brain.”

Cole’s studio life slowed to a trickle when she was a single mom, but she stayed connected to the art world by subscribing to trade magazines.

The chief curator at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson hired Cole after seeing her work and learning that she knew the gallery side of the business, too.

“He said I was the only person in Mississippi who knew the art world and could talk to the artists — and he didn’t have the money to do a national search,” she says.

Cole did her share of grunt work as an assistant curator.

“We drove the trucks, hung the shows, everything,” she says.

When she needed a better salary to raise her sons, she leaned on her left brain again and returned to computers as a freelance writer of software user manuals. Later, she modified code for distributor of JD Edwards’ accounting software.

Cole liked the work, but she craved a better art scene and a better school for her younger son, who was still at home.

Enter North Carolina.

Cole knew about the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem. She tripped over Greensboro on a scouting trip to the area in 1984.

The city worked. Her son found a public school he liked, and Cole found a job selling and installing the same software she’d been working with.

A couple of years later, at age 43, she started her own business, Computer Results Co., which she operated out of an office on Banking Street.

She traveled internationally. Between trips, a friend introduced her to Seymour Levin, who ran a scrap metal recycling business in the town of Elon. They married in 1988. Cole sold her business the following year and plunged back into art. She rented studio space and became a strong supporter of the Weatherspoon.

Thirty years later, she dedicates her show to Levin, who encourages her love of art.

“I married a breast,’” she says, bestowing the compliment she gives to people who nurture others. “That’s the best kind of guy.”

The show illustrates how Cole, the artist, jumpstarted the three series she’d begun years before. She picked up F.E.A.R.S again.

Thorns, a breast shape covered with rose-like barbs, appears in the exhibit. It represents the fear of being tough. Another sculpture, Vessel, stands for the fear of water, which Cole conquered by learning how to swim.

She also revived the Anti-Nothingness Image, or ANI, works.

The Dissection of ANI is part of the exhibit. The androgynous sculpture is a phallic column that folds back on itself to look like breast on the outer edge and womb on the inner edge: three powers in one.

Cole refreshed another thread of work with the Resurrection of the Bubble Blower.

Unlike the earlier breasts, the Resurrection breasts — some made within the last five years — are lavish domes, many with nipples out, a sign that Cole was ready to give again.

“I think Carol would describe her work as visual psychoanalysis,” says Johnson, the New York art critic and co-curator of the Weatherspoon show.

Johnson first saw Cole’s collection in 2013, when she stayed with her while covering a show at the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill. Cole is on the Ackland board.

Johnson recognized the significance of Cole’s work.

“She is the classic still-to-be-discovered feminist artist who has made work that is deeply personal. It ties her psychological, emotional growth with her art-making practice,” Johnson says.

Cole joins a wave of older female artists who have been brought to the fore in the last five years, thanks largely to the efforts of art-world women like Johnson and Stamey. Separately, the duo hatched the idea of an exhibit and ran it by Cole.

Cole got the two together, displaying her flair for making connections. A consummate networker, she uses her computer-like mind to store, sort and link the people she knows.

That’s a lot of people.

Cole attends art show openings, fundraisers and fairs around the country. She is a regular on the New York gallery scene, sometimes hosting get-togethers at her apartment in midtown Manhattan.

When contemporary art muckety-mucks come to North Carolina, she often hosts them in her home, on the edge of Greensboro’s Irving Park.

The place has a creative pedigree. Fashion designer Robin Mack Davis, owner of Mack and Mack custom clothing business, grew up in the Mid-Century home that was built in 1958. Cole and Levin bought the home in 2000 and did a major overhaul, converting the daylight basement to the main living area.

With the help of Charlottesville architect W.G. Clark, they excised a chunk of floor between two levels to create visual breathing room and wall space for art.

“I want people to see how we live with art,” says Cole.

They also added a 1,000-square-foot studio for Cole, a lap pool and an apartment for guests.

Overnighters have included Jerry Saltz, three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and senior art critic for New York magazine; Saltz’s wife, Roberta Smith, and an art critic for The New York Times; and Charles Bergman, chairman of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, named for artist-spouses Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner.

Connoisseurs or not, most visitors to the home are captivated by double-whammy of art and architecture. Cole recalls an appliance deliveryman who’d never seen anything like it.

“He said, ‘Hey, can I bring my brother back?’” she remembers.

But the mammary menagerie can be overwhelming for some, as it was for one partygoer.

“He couldn’t handle it. He had to leave,” Cole says. “I know how controversial the breast is when it’s not sexual.”

In general, she says, readers of literature are the most likely to understand her collection.

The show’s subtitle, Cast a Clear Light, is based on something Tennessee Williams once said in an interview with Guilford-County native
Edward R. Murrow: “Let us not deny all the dark things of the human heart, but let us try to cast a clear light on them in our work.”

That’s Cole’s goal.

“I’m trying to share what I’ve been through and what I’ve learned.” 

Maria Johnson is a regular contributor to Seasons and O.Henry. She can be reached at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

On March 20 at 4 p.m., Cole will be in the Weatherspoon gallery to talk about her life as an artist and collector. Discussion guides will be George Scheer, director of Elsewhere, a thrift-store-turned-creators’-space in downtown Greensboro, and Anna Wallace, a graduate student who worked on the Cole exhibit. The exhibit runs through June 17. See more information at www.weatherspoon.uncg.edu

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