The Art Biz ep. 126: Play Tops Work, Connection Tops Solitude, and Confidence Tops Fear with Willie Cole

There’s always plenty to be learned from artists who have been making a go of it for decades. Just think about how much has changed in 30 years!

In this episode of The Art Biz, my guest is Willie Cole, a self-described perceptual engineer with an impressive list of collaborations under his belt and even more in the works.

Sculpture of water bottles in serpentine shapes artist Willie Cole | on Art Biz Success
© 2016 Willie Cole, ASCENSION. Plastic water bottles, 300 inch (762 centimeter) diameter. Photo by Greg Staley. Image courtesy of the artist and Alexander and Bonin, New York.

Willie and I spoke about the faith he has in his work as a result of being consistent throughout the years. And, actually, why he says work is a bad word and prefers to approach his studio in the spirit of play.

We discuss his art and why he challenges people to perceive recognizable objects, like shoes and musical instruments, in new ways. 

Willie has also perceived what is possible for his art and career in new ways by considering possibilities beyond galleries and museums. He says, “They are part of the game but not the whole game.” (Yes, he used the word game. Again, adding an element of play to his vision.)

You’ll hear how one of his Instagram posts—where he mocked up his art as if to appear on the cover of Vogue (see below)—led to collaborations with major fashion brands. Such opportunities continue coming his way, which might be the result of his faith in his practice.

Spoiler: Visualizing success plays a role. 


  • Willie calls himself a perceptual engineer, but what exactly does that mean? (3:12)
  • The importance (if any) of showing the materials Willie uses to create his work, including parts from 75 guitars. (5:35) 
  • “Planning makes it feel too much like a job.” How Willie approaches his work instead. (11:02)
  • A peek inside Willie’s studio. (13:58)
  • Work is a bad word, but play can make your business better every day. (15:55)
  • Staying in a playful mindset in every stage of production. (19:15)
  • The value of improvisation and the value of not knowing everything. (21:08)
  • Willie feels like the luckiest business person in America. (23:40) 
  • The business-minded people that make up Willie’s team, and insights into his collaborations. (25:36)
  • Propelling yourself forward in spite of your fears. (35:24)
  • The difference between fashion industry collaborations and gallery relationships. (37:51)
  • The music on Willie’s current playlist and what is coming up next in his work. (40:28)
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Willie Cole Quotes

  • “I enjoy making your brain stutter.”
  • “Play is play, and the opposite of play, I guess, would be work.” 
  • “It becomes work rather than play when it becomes a money making business.” 
  • “Knowing has limitations, because once you find something, you only see it as that.” 
  • “I feel like the luckiest business person in America.” 
  • “When passion marries intention and it can be monetized, it’s work but it’s also just joy.” 
  • “To proceed with confidence and fearlessness, I have to believe that opportunities connect.” 
  • “Connections open up so many doors, they keep the fear way behind me.” 

Related Episodes

Geoffrey Gorman philosophizes on living the life of an artist.

Alicia Goodwin talks about how she is always looking for the next opportunity.

Christine Aaron confronts risk, rejection, and resilience

Laurence de Valmy discusses how she boldly reached out to art world influencers.

About My Guest

Willie Cole calls himself a perceptual engineer. Whether he is using the symbolism of a steam iron or the shapes of high fashion shoes and recognizable music instruments, he challenges how we look at things.

While he has had solo exhibitions at esteemed institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, Miami Art Museum, and Montclair Art Museum, Willie embraces nontraditional avenues for his work, such as collaborations with major fashion brands. He is represented by Alexander and Bonin Gallery in New York, Maus Contemporary Gallery (Alabama), Gavlak Gallery (Los Angeles/Florida), and Kavi Gupta Gallery (Chicago). Willie lives and works in New Jersey.

Follow him in Instagram: @williecoleart


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4 thoughts on “The Art Biz ep. 126: Play Tops Work, Connection Tops Solitude, and Confidence Tops Fear with Willie Cole”

  1. I was SO freaking excited to listen to this! I first discovered Willie Cole in 1998 at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC and became an instant fan. I LOVE, LOVE Willie Cole!! Listening to this podcast made me love him even more! Willie’s wisdom and vision for how to live and play his game is so inspiring. I kept pausing to take notes. Willie is the real deal. As are you, Alyson. I’ve been following your work for years as well and this episode totally rocked! Thank you!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Kathy: Yay! I’m so happy that we could bring you this conversation. And to hear that you took notes. Very curious as to what resonated most. Thanks for following and listening!

  2. I really enjoyed this interview. I especially loved Willie Cole’s philosophy and outlook…and listening how being committed to his creativity has led to doors opening and his creativity and art finding their expression in myriad ways and venues, in likely and unlikely places. I also related to his description of differences between gallery relationships and commissions. It was fun to “see” the world through his eyes for a bit.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Thanks for listening, Christine. It’s going to be fun to see what Willie does next.

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