Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Stephanie Cole's mosaic memories at Cape Ann Museum

The most intriguing exhibitions tell stories. Some are mysterious, some dramatic. Some are historic, and others transcend time.

But exhibitions like Stephanie Cole’s “My Life in Pieces,” on view now at the Cape Ann Museum, are personal. Profoundly personal.

Memory can be focused on a discrete event—a trauma, a confrontation, an unexpected happiness. Or it can be conveyed through the accreted collection of everyday materials, fabricated gracefully to create momentum. As in Cole’s case.

The Rockport artist, trained as a painter, practiced her craft sporadically while raising her two daughters—one of them noted pop singer Paula Cole. But for the past three decades, she has privately turned from painting—which she now describes as inadequate—to building sculptural mosaics. The works are shrine-like acknowledgements of milestones in her life, tributes to loved ones and lost ones, or political statements.

Nine of these mosaic assemblages are on view in “My Life in Pieces,” along with three sewn mannequin-type dolls.

For the mosaics, Cole assembled mixed media—ceramics of all kinds, broken plates, many small figurines, shells, typewriter keys, buttons. She frames them as violin cases, altars, grandfather clocks—so that the outward shape mimics something familiar, while the materials used are a hodgepodge of the seemingly haphazard.

For all their many parts, and dense exposition, the sculptures present an arresting calmness. Hundreds of details blend easily together to tell a story. The disparate nature of the media cannot be missed, but in Cole’s arrangements they acquire an unmistakable unity. Her random objects find peace—and meaning—together.

Their titles reveal the artist’s mind, and add to the expression: “Depressing Issue,” “Dining Room Window,” “Mom.” Another, labeled “Paradise,” one of the altar-like assemblages, has an accompanying pen-and-pencil sketch, offering a modest example of the transition from idea to finished product.

Stephanie Cole: Violet. Mixed media. On view as part of “My Life in Pieces” at Cape Ann Museum.

Stephanie Cole: Violet. Mixed media. On view as part of “My Life in Pieces” at Cape Ann Museum.

Any collection evoking an artist’s memories transforms itself through the viewer’s gaze. We can’t know the artist, or her precise intentions, but we can feel our own impressions. Especially when the work has such a seamless, organic quality—belying its hectic initial appearance as a cluttered aggregation. 

Cole invites viewers to “Do the work” of discovering what these assemblages might signify, and the result of those inquiries is perhaps much more expansive than the artist intended. 

“My Life in Pieces: Painting with Stuff” marks a coming out for Cole, who has worked privately on the mosaics since the 1980s, and is now showing them publicly for the first time. Her work will be the subject of a subsequent exhibition as well, “Secular Cathedral,” at Brockton’s Fuller Craft Museum next January. 

Stephanie Cole’s “My Life in Pieces: Painting with Stuff” remains on view through July 7 at the Cape Ann Museum. For more information visit visit www.capeannmuseum.org or call 978-283-0455.

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