Willie Cole had 100 leftover saxophones from his Kansas City airport art, so he kept building
Cole’s installation — titled “Ornithology” after Charlie Parker’s 1946 tune — consists of 12 birds made entirely from alto saxophones which suspend from the ceiling of Concourse B inside the new KCI terminal. But Cole keeps returning to Kansas City to work on more saxophone sculptures.
Willie Cole didn’t choose to be an artist. It’s always been part of him.
“I think I was an artist in a previous life,” said the contemporary American sculptor, printer and perceptual engineer. “When I was 3 years old, my mom found me drawing in the kitchen, and since then, my family always said I was an artist. I went along with it. I enjoyed it.”
Cole’s art work has been showcased across the United States in such museums and institutes as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Montclair Art Museum, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University and most recently, the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
The New Jersey-native unveiled his jazz-inspired sculptures alongside 27 other artists when the new terminal opened in February. Cole’s installation — titled “Ornithology” after Charlie Parker’s 1946 tune — consists of 12 birds made entirely from alto saxophones which suspend from the ceiling of Concourse B.
“I live in the world of ideas and imagination,” Cole shared. “When I think of Kansas City, I think of Charlie Parker because he’s from Kansas City. His nicknames were ‘Bird’ and ‘Yardbird’ and he played the saxophone — so it just seemed logical to make birds out of saxophones.”
Although “Ornithology” has been completed, Cole’s work with alto saxophones is not yet done, he said, surrounded by dozens of saxophones inside a studio in the West Bottoms.
“When I finished the project, I still had 100 saxophones left over; so, I kept building the birds,” Cole explained. “… I have dealers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, who show my work; so I’m sending them one each to see what the reaction is. Perhaps one of them will ask me to send them more, and we will work together on a show. Everything I make is for sale; it’s how I make my living.”
Cole is based in New Jersey, but he comes back to Kansas City for about one week every month to continue working on his sculptures. It takes him around one full day of work to complete one sculpture, he said.
“It’s like having a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box,” Cole said. “You know it makes the bird — you just need to figure out which pieces to use.”
As Cole sculpts each bird, he secures the saxophone pieces with zip ties. Then, he passes the bird off to Michael Corrigan also known as the “Horn Doctor,” who hooks the pieces together with no welding or soldering. just positioning. Corrigan is a musical instrument craftsman and founder of B.A.C. Musical Instruments in Kansas City.
“It is truly indescribable, the role I was able to play in collaborating with Willie on Ornithology,” Corrigan shared. “Throughout the project, I found myself pausing repeatedly to express my gratitude to Willie, fully aware of the immense impact this artwork would have on Kansas City.
“Beyond Willie’s extraordinary perspective, the installation masterfully narrates a profound story, vividly emphasizing the significance of Kansas City’s Jazz history to all who pass by,” Corrigan continued. “It is nothing short of awe-inspiring to witness the birth of a new visual icon that so powerfully resonates with one of Kansas City’s most invaluable contributions to the world.”
Before setting up a workplace in the West Bottoms, Cole worked at the Boone Theater in Kansas City’s historic jazz district, 18th and Vine.
“While I was working in the Boone Theater, I had this great sense of timelessness,” Cole shared. “Here I am working in the present, and I’m standing in the past at this historic theater. I liked it. I would love to have that feeling every day, but I felt it in the Boone Theater.”
'No boundary line to art'
Limitations force creativity, Cole noted.
Throughout Cole’s sculptures, he will utilize one type of material or object to create something new. For example, if he wanted to create a tail for his birds, using feathers would not be creative, he said. Rather, he limited his materials to the saxophones to force himself to come up with how to create a tail from saxophones.
“I see my similar objects as a molecule or an atom,” Cole described. “Just as the same cell is replicated to create a child, one object can be replicated into another structure. It’s all about perception. It’s all about transformation — visual transformation.”
Before becoming a sculptor, Cole was a painter. As a painter, he also practiced the art of limitations.
“When I was a painter, I only used three colors,” Cole recalled. “The message of my work changes all the time. It’s usually driven by the material.”
With “Ornithology,” both the song and the sculpture call the audience to the fray of humanness the same way that birds do, Cole said.
“It’s about layering and synchronizing symbols, about being both conceptual and contextual,” Cole shared. “Charlie Parker once said, ‘Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.’”
Water bottle chandeliers
Cole headed back through KCI, where he would walk under his birds and travel to his next project in New York City.
“The airport curator is going to put one of these birds in the same location, so people can see one of them up close,” Cole noted. “It’s a very similar bird except with legs.”
In June, Cole installed four of his iconic chandeliers made from recycled water bottles on Park Avenue in New York City. He has been creating art out of water bottles for over a decade.
“About 13 or 14 years ago, I was invited to have a show at this big sculpture park in New Jersey called Grounds For Sculpture,” Cole recalled. “They invited me to show inside one of their three galleries, but they didn’t have a budget for a show. So I didn’t have money for production. I thought, ‘What could I make for free?’ I was drinking a water at the time and saw all the lines in the bottle and how it could be collapsed. I was able to turn the bottle into a fish and realized I could probably make anything with these bottles.”
That very night, Cole had a dream about a chandelier made of water bottles with small photos of Buddha inside each one, he said. For the show at Grounds For Sculpture, he created a 20-foot diameter chandelier made from around 7,000 water bottles — each with a small Buddha inside.
Cole has created numerous other water bottle sculpturessince.
“It’s become a tool for teaching about the environment, so I get invited to schools and universities across the country to create these projects with students,” Cole said. “It didn’t start out as a message on recycling or environment, but that is what art can become.”
This story was originally published on Startland News, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.