BANGOR — Kenny Cole is many things.
Painter. Activist. Carpenter.
With his latest installation, we can add storyteller to that list.
Cole, 55, rewrites a bit of Civil War history with “Parabellum,” an interactive painting installation in the Zillman Gallery at the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor.
He describes it as “a culture-jamming, docu-fiction activism work of art, which rewrites the past in order to guide us into the future.”
In other words, it’s another in Cole’s continuing series of anti-war art that questions one of the tenets of American foreign policy, which goes back to the days of Plato and from which Cole derived the name for this exhibition:
Si vis pacem, para bellum.
Translated from Latin, that means, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
“It’s hard to argue against that, right?” Cole asked, as he applied the final touches to his installation last week. “But” – there’s always a “but” with Cole, who has made his name challenging authority and widely held beliefs and ideas – “call me naive, but we have to start somewhere. Art is a great place to start.”
For this piece, Cole takes on the persona of Bains Revere, a fictional Civil War veteran and outsider artist who expresses his distaste for war, as well as his pacifist views, by creating 82 two-sided canvases. On the outside, the paintings resemble flags, with cultural motifs painted almost entirely in vermillion. The hinged, box-like canvases open up, revealing the poetry of Cole’s co-conspirator and real-life friend Chris Crittenden.
“He can’t retreat, only shoot,” the poet writes. “Wherever he goes they tell him to shoot.”
There are two stories here: The story of the art itself, in which Cole immerses himself as the character in his fiction. And then there’s the story of artist, who arrived in Maine in 1993 to escape the chaotic city life of New York and found his activist voice at just about the time he was ready to give up art entirely.
We’ll start with the story behind the art, “Parabellum.”
Cole has been thinking about the broad theme of pacifism for many years. He long ago created the character Bains Revere in his imagination, conjuring the name from an anagram of a friend named Brian Reeves. He liked the way it sounded, and thought Bains was an appropriate name for someone who would have fought in the Civil War.
OLD PAPERS PROVIDED THE SPARK
The particulars of this exhibition presented themselves when Cole found a trove of newspapers from the 1890s between the finished floor and subfloor of his old farmhouse in Monroe.
The papers offered a window to the late 19th century, and prompted Cole to think about his old friend Bains Revere. He imagined Revere as an aging veteran, and a reluctant one at that, who was given the unflattering title of straggler during the war, as one who fearfully shirked his duty and was shunned as a coward or traitor.
In real life, some Union generals threatened stragglers with execution, although Union Army commander Ulysses S. Grant tolerated the stragglers, empathizing with their panic and sympathizing with their fears.
In Cole’s world, Revere was born in Sangerville in 1840, and died there in 1902.
In real life, Sangerville also was the home of Hiram Maxim, who is best known as the inventor of the automatic machine gun.
In Cole’s telling of this tale, Revere and Maxim were lifetime friends. Revere admired his friend’s intelligence as an inventor, but was troubled that Maxim invented a weapon that made killing more efficient.
Cole imagines it was this shift in his friend’s life that pushed Revere toward pacifism.
Struggling with his emotions and old age, Revere turned to art to help mitigate what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder. These canvases would have expressed his thoughts and fears, and hung in the front parlor of Revere’s Sangerville home.
Cole presents this made-up history mostly with wall text, though the viewer can discern some of it with a careful examination of the art.
And by all means, Cole wants people to look closely and indeed even touch the art. He hopes viewers open the hinged panels, read the words inside and look carefully at his graphics, though he realizes many people probably won’t. “Some people won’t touch it at all,” he said. “It’s pretty ingrained: ‘Do not touch the art.’ But we want them to touch.”
Cole adorned his boxed canvases with the old newspapers, affixing them with wallpaper paste and coating them with a thin gesso, diluted just enough so that the old newsprint shows through. He painted the outer canvases with motifs that he found in the newspapers and from symbolism of the day. These are meant to look like flags, and some appear patriotic with stars and stripes. Others are more pedestrian: images of top hats, coins, a hypodermic needle, which would have been used to self-administer morphine.
As he made these flags, he was conscious to avoid making them too patriotic, so he avoided using a combination of red, white and blue paint. He stuck almost exclusively with vermillion, which was a common and affordable pigment at the turn of the century and one that Revere would have in abundance at his Sangerville home.
He fills the inside of his boxes with relief maps, made from papier mache, more illustrations and lines from Crittenden’s poetry.
He met the poet at an artist retreat in Lubec a few years ago. The two hit it off. Given the pair’s like-minded view of the world, “Parabellum” presented an apt opportunity to incorporate Crittenden’s words in his work, Cole said.
University of Maine Museum of Art director and curator George Kinghorn offered Cole a show after a series of studio visits to Cole’s home. He had seen Cole’s work over the years, and admired the artist’s convictions and commitment.
“I really like the fact that his work is immersive and interactive,” Kinghorn said. “It has hands-on appeal, which is a bit different for a museum show. And I think the idea of an artist taking on the persona of a fictional character who is the producer of these paintings is pretty quirky and unique.”
Cole airs an agenda in this work, Kinghorn said, but does so for the sake of a conversation. He invites people to discuss the issues raised in the art.
An artist friend, Natasha Mayers of Whitefield, has worked closely with Cole on many art projects that are associated with the Union of Maine Visual Artists.
Cole was instrumental in the group’s draw-a-thons and print-a-thons, in which artists from across Maine came together to protest various issues and advocate for causes. One draw-a-thon asked artists to draw images of things they would rather see the government spend money on instead of war.
Cole’s funding desires speak to the kind of person he is, Mayers said. Among other things, Cole asked for more park benches, fishing lessons for every child in Maine and parades in every town.
His art is layered, and provides viewers with multiple entry points and different levels of understanding, Mayers said.
“The front of it is simplistic, or emblematic – flags, in red and white with pleasing geometric patterns. But the work gets more complex when you open it up,” she said. “He motivates the viewer to really think about it. He gives them time to enter something, and is motivating us to get into the work by the way he presents it.”
No detail is too small. Cole had the hinges for his canvases fabricated so they would open in a certain way. And most of the screws he used to affix the hinges to the art and to the wall came from a salvage operation in the Pacific Northwest. Just any old screw would not do. He wanted a specific kind that would have been used in the late 1800s.
Portland gallery owner Andres Versoza met the artist through the many announcements and catalogs that Cole sent to the gallery. In February 2012, Verzosa included him in a UMVA Painting Invitational at Aucocisco, and later that same year gave him a solo show.
Cole’s profile has risen considerably in recent years through his inclusion in the Center for Maine Contemporary Art Biennial, as well as a triennial, featuring New England artists, at the University of Maine.
Cole also has received several grants, as well as a Monhegan Island Residency.
NEW YORK TO MAINE
Cole and his wife, Vicky, moved to Maine with their two children in 1993. They had been living in New York, and his wife worked at the World Trade Center. She was at work that morning in late February when a truck bomb was detonated below one of the two towers.
Vicky was unharmed, but rattled. The couple had talked about moving to Maine for some time, and that terrorist event motivated them to act.
They moved to Maine later that year, buying an old farmhouse and barn in Monroe, which is between Belfast and Bangor.
The barn was an important piece in Cole’s larger plan. He had always worked as an artist, but had achieved only modest success. At the time of the move, he considered giving up art altogether, but wanted to give his creativity an honest final effort. A barn afforded him a place to work.
The World Trade Center truck bomb, in combination with the first Gulf War that began in 1990 and his move to Maine, where he associated with the Union of Maine Visual Artists, inspired the activist streak in his work.
Cole came of age during the Vietnam War. When that war ended, he drifted happily into the disco era and on with his life. He got married, had kids and never thought twice about the United States being a militaristic nation until it led the United Nations-backed effort against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
“All of sudden, we’re dropping bombs,” Cole remembers thinking. “That didn’t make any sense to me.”
His anti-war activism has grown stronger with time. This is the third exhibition since 2006 that has focused on themes of war, and his first solo museum show.
He’s proud of “Parabellum” for many reasons, chief among them its historical nature. Even among those who consider themselves anti-war, the Civil War occupies an elevated cultural niche, he noted. The war has been glorified and re-enacted, the memory of its hero generals committed to film and marble.
“Parabellum” reminds people that history can be a little messy.
“I realize it’s a bit of a downer to bring up the fact that not everyone was willing to fight,” Cole said. “But that’s what I do. That’s my job as an artist.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: