The soapy swirl, the iron, and the doves which are born

Willie Cole‘s imagery is about

the creation of our every-day world by the manufacture of the things we use;


things useful and necessary and even beautiful;


and the claim to sanctity of the high human cost of the manufacture of some of these products.




Pablo Neruda‘s poem about the making of poetry can be taken as a metaphor for this process of manufacture.


He died in circumstances which may or may not be ambiguous.


  People lined the roadway as his cortege passed, declaiming his poetry.  They had been banned from attending.






In Praise of Ironing

(Oda Para Planchar from Plenos Poderos, 1962)

by Pablo Neruda, poet, diplomat, 1904-1973, Chilean

translated by Alastair Reid, Scottish poet and translator, 1926-2014




Poetry is pure white.



It emerges from water covered with drops,




In the Wash-House, 1888, oil on canvas, mounted on wood.

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, 1856-1942, American.  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia




is wrinkled, all in a heap.






Hanging out the laundry to dry (The Gennevilliers Plain), 1875, oil on canvas, and detail. 

Berthe Morisot,1841-1895, French.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC 






It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet,








A Woman Ironing, 1876-87, oil on canvas, and detail. 

Edgar Degas, 1834-1917, French.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC






Antique irons from an antique emporium in Kingston, NY, 2015.

Many irons had a cavity and a covering.  Hot coals would be placed in that cavity.  A lot of work.




has to be ironed out, the sea’s whiteness;







Branded Irons, 2000, scorched plywood panels. 

Willie Cole, American born 1955.  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia


The artist, an African American, sees the iron in many ways. 

His mother and grandmother kept house for others and would often ask him to fix their broken irons.


  Branding has a place in slavery.  And rows of irons lined up bring to mind bodies in slave ships lined up and ready for transportation. 



Untitled, 1969, acrylic on composition board, 1969. 

Malcolm Bailey, 1947-2011, American.  Whitney Museu of (North) American Art, NY


Slavery and post-Civil War Reconstruction created huge cotton wealth, of course, for the United States and for the United Kingdom to whom a significant portion of cotton was exported.

Slaves branded with irons – something so dark – transformed into the brightest white, ready for washing and ironing. ‘Pure innocence returns out of the swirl’ as the poet says below.





Cotton, 1997, etching and aquatint. 

Kara Walker, American born 1969. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia



The metal base of an iron, the ‘sole plate’ has also been a subject for the artist: he has  made art which addreses the iron’s piece parts standing in for soul and body. 


Willie Cole has also taken an interest in the images conjured up by the vent holes in such sole plates and has suggested what images these create for him.

Vent holes. These conjure entry ways deep into our earth and into our minds.






West Country (UK) shepherd’s smock, 19th century and earlier. 

  A photograph posted by Elizabeth Baer (died 2016), a British antiquarian textile dealer. who taught us so many things in her appreciation for and care of textiles.




and the hands keep moving, moving,






Iron, 1962, encaustic on wood. 

Jasper Johns, American born 1930.  Philadelphia Art Museum




the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are accomplished.





A Woman Ironing, 1873, oil on canvas. 

Edgar Degas, 1834-1917, French.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC





Every day, hands are creating the world,





Sunbeam Male: Ceremonial, 2004, digital print on Epson 9600 using Ultra Chrome archival links. 

Willie Cole, American born 1954. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia



fire is married to steel,







Domestic I.D. IV, 1992, steam iron scorch and pencil on paper, mounted in recycled wooden window frame. 

Willie Cole, American born 1955. MOMA, NY




and canvas, linen, and cotton come back
from the skirmishings of the laundries,






American Domestic, 2016, digital pigment and serigraph, and detail.

Willie Cole, American born 1955. Pennsylvania College of the Fine Arts


The painting above refers, of course, to one of the most famous of American paintings (below):  American Gothic.


The African-American couple have been reduced to cyphers: they are there to work:  the one in the field and the other in the house.  It is all about cotton and servitude.  The markings on the woman’s smock have been transformed into the shape of the iron. 





American Gothic, 1930, oil on beaverboard. 

Grant Wood, 1891-1941, American.  Art Institute of Chicago from whose website this photo




and out of light a dove is born –








Woman Ironing , and detail, 1904, oil on canvas. 

Pablo Picasso, 1991-1973, Spanish.  Thannhauser Collection, Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY




pure innocence returns out of the swirl.





The White Shirt, 1946, oil on canvas. 

Guillermo Meza, 1917-1997, Mexican.  Philadelphia Art Museum





Five Beauties Rising, etching, 2002. 

Willie Cole, American born 1955. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY








8 thoughts on “The soapy swirl, the iron, and the doves which are born

  1. I was remembering our discussion about ironing! You asked if I iron. I said, yes, everything that should be.

    One of my ‘younger’ friends was scandalized by the idea of spending time ironing. I hope it isn’t dying altogether because it does have its uses, to the eye and to the senses, I am sure!

    Thanks for taking the time to read this. Sarah

  2. Just to state the obvious, the amount of research that you put into this post and your selection of the images is impressive to say the least. I’m learning a great deal from your posts.Many thanks.

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