Fort Worth’s thirst for art answered by 30-foot sculpture made of plastic water bottles

dfwnewsa | March 7, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Fort Worth’s thirst for art answered by 30-foot sculpture made of plastic water bottles

The water bottle sculpture, created by artist Willie Cole with the help of more than 300 Fort Worth-area students, is on display at Arts Fort Worth from March 1-31. The sculpture is propped against the wall, as it’s too tall to stand upright in the gallery. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)
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Artist Willie Cole grabbed hold of his subject’s legs and ripped them off the torso. Cole then grabbed a tricep and forcefully removed the man’s arm from his rotator cuff. The other arm was similarly removed.

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Finally, Cole snapped off the man’s head and lugged it, along with each dismembered piece of the body, into the basement elevator of Arts Fort Worth.

Each body part took a ride up Arts Fort Worth’s cargo elevator, ultimately emerging into an exhibit room made bright by white lights and cream-colored walls.

Settled in there, the artist began to work new life into the 30-foot figure made of 20,000 used plastic water bottles. 

Cole snapped the arms back into shoulders, legs back onto the torso, and placed the figure’s severed head back onto the neck. 

When completed, Arts Fort Worth and the exhibit room in which the man was given life, hosted the sculpture’s introduction to Fort Worth. 

“Thank you for choosing to do this project in our community,” Mayor Mattie Parker said to Cole during the sculpture’s unveiling on March 1. “The inspiration you’re providing to our students here in Fort Worth, it’s important.”

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Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker speaks during the unveiling of the water bottle sculpture on March 1, 2024, at Arts Fort Worth. The work of the Tarrant County Education Foundation, which helped create the artwork, is important, Parker said. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

The project, which began in August 2023, was far more than a simple dismemberment and restoration. It included hundreds of Fort Worth-area students who collected water bottles, cleaned and stacked them, and took photos to document the process. 

The project opened their eyes to not just a career in art industries, but their careers as a whole, said Arlene Barnett, a founder of Tarrant County Education Foundation.

“We need to find ways to engage the kids,” Barnett said, who noted that a key focus of the project was to talk to students about scholarships and where they are in their college application process.

TCEF founder Arlene Barnett speaks at the unveiling of the water bottle sculpture on March 1, 2024, at Arts Fort Worth. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

Barnett wants these students to start thinking about their future, and specifically, how they’re going to get there. 

“Through one experience, we’re able to open the doors to multiple,” Barnett said. 

Cole doesn’t just use the students as free labor, either. Sure, they’re collecting what most would perceive as trash, Barnett said, but they’re learning a plethora of life skills and lessons along the way.

Conservationism, creativity and teamwork were a few of the things learned, she said, all while exploring scholarship opportunities offered by TCEF.

“TCEF recognized that Dallas County was getting more and doing more, and our kids in Tarrant County and Fort Worth weren’t the focus,” Parker said. “Now, these fundraising efforts are transforming lives.”

Jordan Cooper, a senior at Crowley ISD’s Bill R. Johnson CTE Center, stood in the same exhibit room a month before Cole rode the cargo elevator with his dismantled artwork. The student furled his brow and contemplated the sculpture.

Cooper wants to be a videographer or photographer and has already begun his early career as cameraman for his school’s football team. During the art project, Cooper took photos of the process; his work is displayed on the gallery’s walls adjacent to the sculpture. 

“Photography and art are the same,” Cooper said. “Through photos, I want to tell the story of how all this came together.”

One of the three students who volunteered through TCEF to work with Cole throughout the creative process, Cooper said the project is opening his eyes to the field — and the many different industries photography is crucial for.

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“It’s teaching me how to be more professional, and how to work with people who are in different professions,” Cooper said. 

Cooper first met Cole during the summer of 2023, as work on the water bottle sculpture started in the basement of Arts Fort Worth. On scorching August afternoons, in the loudly air-conditioned basement of Arts Fort Worth, Cole stood over student volunteers like Cooper, often with a water bottle in hand.

Cole called himself a “perceptual engineer.” He encouraged students to “open up perception” and see familiar objects in a fresh way.

“You have to look at everything to see what you’re reminded of,” Cole told the students as they worked on what was an artful recycling effort. “Everything can be anything.”

The proof of that spans 30-feet, propped against an Arts Fort Worth wall, looking down on visitors with eyes made out of plastic water bottles.

Matthew Sgroi is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at matthew.sgroi@fortworthreport.org or @MatthewSgroi1 on X.. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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