Willie Cole, a Newark native and noted artist, knows exactly why he wants to create close to home.
"We have a water bottle crisis, and a water crisis in general. Plastic is killing the environment, and the lead pipes are affecting the water in big cities around the country, including in Newark," said Cole, who is preparing to construct a more than 20-foot tall sculpture in Newark made out of plastic water bottles, with community participation.
"Making a public structure draws attention and makes people ask questions, which leads to conversation, which could lead to solutions," he said.
Cole's goal is to collect at least 30,000 plastic water bottles, that will be upcycled, or creatively reused, to create a giant human sculpture to be located in the Fairmount section of Newark.
"We're going to make a giant, a Gulliver, a 20-foot-tall human being," said Cole, laughing with glee in anticipation of the new creation. "People can relate to the human body because we all have one. It's a good vehicle for communication."
Collection of the bottles for the project will culminate in September, when the more than 30,000 plastic bottles needed for the sculpture will be gathered at the Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology in Newark.
The bottles will then be assembled into the sculpture at a temporary work site on Central Avenue in a space provided by the Urban League of Essex County across the street from its offices. The effort is being coordinated by Newark Arts. The sculpture is scheduled to be completed in November.
The project will be completed with the help of students from Donald Payne Tech and Sussex Avenue School, as well as residents of the area. Cole will be speaking to school groups about the project, with plans to bring kids to the work site, including students during school hours, to assist with making the sculpture.
Armisey Smith, a Newark artist, is the creative placemaking coordinator for the project. She is working with another Newark artist, teaching assistant Samantha Katehis, to marshal local resources to complete the sculpture.
"I'm excited. I love that there is going to be a lot of community involvement," said Smith, the director of arts at Arts Unbound, a nonprofit organization in Orange dedicated to the artistic achievement of individuals living with physical, developmental and mental disabilities.
"The sculpture helps kids to understand that they can recycle materials and make art from them," Smith said. "They are the generation that will be the most affected if they don't understand how important it is to recycle and take care of the environment. Recycling will be a part of their lives."
Art has always been a part of Cole's life. Growing up in Newark, his mother took him to the Newark Museum almost every Saturday. His love of the arts was encouraged and cultivated through classes at the now-shuttered Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts and from his time attending Newark Arts High School. His love for his mother, the arts, and for Newark all fuel his latest work.
"My mom still lives in Newark, and I I feel the need to get this work done in Newark," Cole, 64, said. "After she got the letter in the mail from the mayor about the problems with the water, it made me feel that an art statement like this could be educational and beneficial to the city where I'm from."
"One thing that attracts me to the water bottles in the way they play in sunlight. It's almost a spiritual experience. It speaks to enlightenment," Cole said. "I hope that the community can help me to help enlighten people about the water. Together, we can have that conversation."
Vivian Cox Fraser, President and CEO of the Urban League of Essex County, will assist in distributing 33-gallon recycling bags to community members and school groups beginning the first week of June. The bags will be distributed out of ThriftWORKS, located at 509 Central Avenue, Newark, NJ, 07107, Monday through Friday, 10 am to 4 pm. The Urban League of Essex County will give participants a coupon to use in the store. Each pickup will require contact information. The Urban League will arrange to pick up the empty water bottles during the first week of September. Those interested can contract the thrift store at 862-234-2669 to confirm pickup times.