Paintings landscapes was just a hobby, not something Frank Cole thought he might show publicly someday. When done with a work, he said, “I just stack them up against the wall.”
“I’m literally painting these things for no reason,” said Cole, who is based in Rockville. Accordingly, he finds it “very strange, very odd” that a whole exhibit of his work is now on view at the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown.
The exhibition, “Rebuilding the Sky,” features scenes that, in the era of mankind, are perhaps in need of “repairing.” And it is that duality of natural beauty and man’s desire to “help” nature along that informs Cole’s showcase, which is at BlackRock through Sept. 14.
Cole first started tackling this subject when he was living in Florida — given a front-row seat to how climate change affected the low-lying areas around him. “I started doing ‘maps’ of Florida and paintings showing the different things that would happen to the environment, to the state—and, by extension, the planet,” he said. “They sort of had a humor and a despair running through them. There’s an exaggeration to it.”
That gallows humor is in evidence on works such as “Island,” which shows a Sunshine State split in half by rising water. The artist wrote an epigram at the top of the painting saying: “Looks good on paper.”
Others feature a drone attack on Orlando; another is a sardonic piece about a massive wave ravaging the state’s Gulf Coast — making hungry real estate agents anxious to sell “new” waterfront property.
“Years later, I was [painting] some ocean waves…and then decided [a way] for my own growth was to put it into the context of what man is doing to the environment in a completely exaggerated form to bring awareness to it,” Cole said of the idea of “rebuilding” the environment. “In this case, man has screwed it up so much that he is trying to rebuild it. Of course, it isn’t going to work, but it is a big task.”
“Rebuilding the Sky” features 26 works that include mixed-media paintings incorporating canvases stretched over panels so that he can also work in materials like strips of wood, metal rods and pieces of stone into the works. In one work, the humans depicted are using them to try to “fix” a broken sunset. In another, a rainbow itself has born torn asunder.
“We always picture sunsets and rainbows — and the sky in general — as this beautiful thing that inspires love and hope,” Cole said. “So, I was taking something that’s archetypally good and turned that into something that is befouled.”
The individual letters of each work’s title are stamped directly onto the canvases themselves so that the message is spelled out explicitly; no interpretation is required.
In fact, the artist actively discourages it. “Most of the time people project themselves into what you’re seeing. And that’s one of the reasons to put titles right on the front of the paintings,” Cole said. “This is what I’m talking about, not what you’re thinking.
“I’ve been painting for 50 years, so my experience is totally different than what most of the audience is going to bring to it.”
Cole, a Virginia native, earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale and later taught at Virginia Commonwealth University and Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida. His day job was real estate and landscape design, but he always kept at his artwork — particularly during the winter when landscape work was at a minimum.
“I became a landscape designer to support myself,” Cole said. “I went to Thailand, got married, had a daughter over there, and moved to Rockville, and I was still doing landscape work. And then I got back into painting after [settling] down.”
He gave his art more serious thought in the latter-aughts, eventually becoming so well known that he was a finalist for the 2017 Bethesda Painting Awards. His works have also been displayed in museums in Richmond and North Carolina, as well as in the private collections of firms like Best Products, Wheat First Securities and Ethyl Corporation. He was also invited to showcase his work in an exhibition called “Wordless Ocean, Pencil Sky” at Richmond’s Hill Gallery and Studio in 2015.
Still, Cole was hoping to get seen more in Montgomery County, where he lives, and an opportunity came when he got the call from BlackRock Gallery Director Anne Burton, who suggested the gallery’s smaller, but better lit, Terrace Gallery. “There is so much natural light coming in,” he said of the upstairs area where his works are displayed. “And I really enjoy seeing my paintings in more of a home-like [setting] and not just in a commercial gallery, which I’m used to.
“It has really been a lot more fun than I thought it would be visually. I get far more out of it just being able to see my work in a different context.”
Because his art deals so much with the interaction of man and nature, Cole said he is hopeful — but still pessimistic — that the issue of climate change can be taken more seriously, and solutions found. “Nature itself has great ability to heal itself. The planet healed when the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs” hit in prehistoric times, he said, “but man’s ability to poison the planet scares me a bit.”
The artist even described attempting to bring the issue to the forefront in his work as perhaps a “futile” endeavor. “I could paint something beautiful, like a vase and flowers, but there’s also a greater futility of painting something about the world like I do,” he said. “But hopefully I’m making these beautiful paintings.
“That’s the funny thing: It’s scary, but it’s going to be beautiful.”
BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown, presents “Frank Cole: Rebuilding the Sky” in the Terrace Gallery through Sept. 14. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. For information, visit BlackRockCenter.org or call 301-528-2260. For more on the artist’s work, visit FrankColeStudio.com.