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MICA grad creates prize-winning sculpture from crime scene police tape

MICA graduate James Cole holds his work "Precinct" (2016), made from Baltimore crime scene police tape.
MICA graduate James Cole holds his work "Precinct" (2016), made from Baltimore crime scene police tape. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

If you happened unawares upon the rope-like artwork created by James Bernard Cole, you might think that's all there is to it — a rope-like artwork.

"After all, it's just yellow, black and linear," says Maren Hassinger, who has served as director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at Maryland Institute College of Art for two decades. "But it's a much deeper piece, a subtler piece than you may think at first. James is interested in the transformative possibilities of art."

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In this case, Cole, who just received his master's degree at MICA, sought to transform a material he saw littering parts of Baltimore — police tape, the kind stretched across crime scenes every day.

After collecting some pieces of abandoned tape, he began experimenting with them by braiding. That gave Cole the idea for creating a large work.

He purchased police barricade tape and, over the course of a month, braided strands of it each night. Though easily pulled apart if handled individually, those strands took on tensile strength when the artist, using the French braid technique for hair, fused them together to form a coil measuring 50 feet in length.

Cole titled the resulting sculptural piece "Precinct," which earned him an Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award in June from the New Jersey-based International Sculpture Center.

"I had been in Baltimore for four months and I was walking my dog when I saw police tape floating down the streets," says Cole, who started his graduate studies at MICA in 2015 after earning a bachelor's degree at the Corcoran College of Art & Design in Washington. "I saw the tape as the presence of the police without their still being there. I began to think of the nature of the material and the nature of policing."

The 33-year-old artist, who arrived in Baltimore shortly after the death of Freddie Gray, does not mince words when discussing his views about police. He uses the word "murder" in connection with Gray and others who died around the country under controversial circumstances involving police. (Six Baltimore police officers were charged in Gray's arrest and death in 2015; three were acquitted and charges were dropped against the others.)

"I think a lot about the way the police force operates within cities like Baltimore," Cole says, "where it becomes this ominous force that goes after marginalized communities. Artists are some of the loudest voices speaking out against this."

For Cole, who lives in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood, urban problems have long been a concern.

"When I was going to school in D.C., I saw how developers were pushing people out of their neighborhoods. I saw the food deserts. In Baltimore I saw an amplified version of that. How can you turn a blind eye to what's going on?"

Cole's activism impresses Hassinger, who was a prime mentor to the artist at MICA.

"James is one of my best students," she says. "He's a warm-hearted, all-inclusive man."

Cole found encouragement at MICA — "Maren made me comfortable with what I was trying to do," he says — and reinforcement for his progressive views. He speaks admiringly of the first book he read in Hassinger's class — "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," Paulo Freire's seminal work from 1968 on education, society and critical thinking.

"In [MICA's sculpture school], we've had many discussions about the power of art work to transform ways of thinking," Hassinger says.

An army brat, Cole was born in Australia and grew up in Germany and several different American states. His journey to Baltimore almost didn't happen. While living and working in Pennsylvania, Cole got hooked on opioids.

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"I hit rock bottom seven years ago," he says. "I had two jobs to feed my addiction, but I got fired, and later that night got high and wrecked my car. My mom helped me get into rehab a week later. It's amazing I'm still here, that I went on to get my associate degree [at Harrisburg Area Community College], my bachelor's and now my master's."

For Cole, sculpture became his passion.

"I love sculpture so much because of the process," he says. "I remember helping my mother with basketweaving as a kid, and I still have a deep appreciation of people working with their hands."

Hassinger shares that appreciation, and the way it led Cole to create "Precinct."

"It's a work of art crafted by his own hands from police tape that represents restraints on people, blocking the public's ability to cross police lines," Hassinger says. "The police are given the authority to shut the public out using that tape."

Cole, who has used more traditional forms of rope in other sculptural pieces, never sought to remove tape from locations where it was being officially used.

"I don't meddle with police scenes," he says, "partly out of fear and partly out of respect for my family — my father was in the military, and my grandfather was a policeman."

When he started his project, Cole did not know for sure how he would display it after he finished braiding it. He decided against forming it into a specific shape. He also decided not to freeze it in one position, but let it remain flexible, ready to be arranged in any fashion at a given moment.

"I've had people come up to me and say, 'That's a nice rope, what is it made of?' When I tell them," Cole says, "they lower their heads and go, "Oh [expletive].' It has the potential to provoke thoughts. It's a quiet piece that can spark a louder conversation."

There will likely be a good deal of conversation-sparking when "Precinct" goes on view in October at the Belger Arts Center in Kansas City, Mo. It will be exhibited with works by the 14 other recipients — out of 356 nominees from 137 schools — of this year's Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Awards. (Whether "Precinct" will end up on public view in Baltimore at some point is not known.)

The award took Cole by surprise.

"I had been busy applying for jobs, and had gone through six weeks of rejections," he says. "I was gardening in Hampden at an artist friend's house, covered in mud in the pouring rain. I had 3 percent battery life on my phone and saw this email pop up. I almost deleted it. It turned out to be congratulations from the International Sculpture Center. I got a little teary-eyed."

Cole is in the process of moving into a studio. He's also still looking for a job.

"My intention is to stay here," he says. "How could I walk away from Baltimore after creating ['Precinct'] here? It would be disrespectful."

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