Willie Cole is a noted contemporary American sculptor, printer, and conceptual and visual artist. Willie Cole will work with students during a one week residency, September 17-21, to construct two buildings out of recycled water bottles in front of the Media Building during Sustainability week. The group is working with Facilities and the VT Sustainability Office to make the project a highlight of the University’s efforts for Sustainability Week. Partners include CAUS and its constituent Schools, the Black Cultural Center, Facilities, among others.

Negotiations for the Wille Cole bottle project started in June. Willie would be making something out of water bottles and the group would have to collect thousands of them by September. At this point the structure that was being made was unknown - maybe a building - but students groups needed to be organized to volunteer to help with the collection, cleaning, preparation and fabrication of the water bottle structure.

In conjunction with the bottle structure there would be other work by Willie shown in the Armory Gallery and possibly the Moss Arts Center. This project would be taking place during Virginia Tech’s Sustainability Week so the theme of turning waste or trash into a public art piece fit nicely within that larger community effort.

Willie emailed with his plan and an outline of what he would need the group to do before he arrived. He wanted to make “one or more block style houses” with steel wire reinforcing the water bottles. He suggested that at least 50,000 clear, 16 oz bottles were collected, cleaned, and punctured at the bottom so they could be threaded together with wire.

Willie suggested that the bottle preparation be done with soldering irons by groups of students as a “tribal AND communal” activity. The group would also needed to acquire 12 gauge wire, ladders, zip ties, and fence pipe. Once in Blacksburg, the plan was to have workshops in which student volunteers would work with Willie over 5 days to produce the structure. The first day would be threading the bottles, the second day would be for weaving the bottle strands into large sheets of bottles, and the third day would be digging holes and making supports in the ground to attach the sheets to. The fourth and fifth days would be the construction of the structures, stuffing them with bottles and sewing them shut with wire.

The first opportunity for gathering water bottles from community members for this project was during the summer through a yearly event in Blacksburg called Steppin’ Out. Steppin’ Out is an arts festival in which local craftspeople, artists, and restaurants set up booths downtown and people walk around and enjoy food and live music. The group got a plan and materials together to collect as many water bottles as possible from festival-goers. Wire framed bins with heavy duty bags in them were placed around the busier streets downtown with signage indicating what was being collected and what for. A few students were organized to monitor the bags, replace them when they got full, and sort through them to make sure they were only keeping the 16 oz clear water bottles and discarding anything else people who didn’t read the signs put in the bags.


Willie Cole Bottle Project
Blurb created for The College of Architecture and Urban Studies

A graphic and blurb were created for the stepping out website so that if people had water bottles they could donate they would be aware of the collection bins at stepping out before they arrived and bring them downtown with them.

Unfortunately, due to the rainy weather during the days of stepping out, only a few water bottles were collected from the event as turnout was low. The project did, however, aid in getting community members aware of the project being planned for the Fall and the need for the water bottles.

Ultimately there was a need for a lot of hands if the project was to be completed in the timeline provided. The first step in organizing people was to contact potentially interested programs to see if they could spread the word to students who would want to volunteer, as well as get faculty involved that could use this experience as a part of their curriculum in the Fall. A PSA to local college radio station WUVT was submitted so that information about the project and volunteering opportunity would be announced to the community over the radio station for a few weeks.

The College of Architecture and Urban studies was contacted and they were able to spread information to students through instagram, email lists, and the college website. A graphic and small blurb was created for these purposes.

Within the Architecture department, few first year studio professors were contacted and decided to assist Wille in the workshops in the fall during their morning studio classes. A lecture was organized for Wille in Hancock hall as part of the Architecture program’s ongoing Wednesday guest lecture series. Chris Pritchett, a studio professor and printmaker, was asked to help with organization of the Architecture students. He assisted with the making of a screen printed poster announcing the dates of Willie Cole’s exhibition in the Armory and lecture in Hancock hall to be hung around town.

Willie Cole Bottle Project
Chris Pritchett's Poster

Ray Callahan, the administrative assistant of SOVA, was essential in the organization and spreading of information to SOVA students and Faculty through email and organization of student volunteers for collecting bottles and heping on workshop days.

The bins that were used previously were relocated to various dining halls and academic buildings across campus to collect water bottles from the students.

University facilities and the athletics department were contacted to try and obtain water bottles from their games, practices and recycling.

Ray Callahan reached out to other organizations as well to try and get them to donate or help collect bottles. Ray spoke to Paula Main with Virginia DEQ in Roanoke, who was gathering plastic water bottles for the project, about coordinating to have the bottles delivered to the group. Don Williams, the director of the University Bookstore, was contacted regarding the Bookstore’s contract with Coke and if the empty bottles could be used. Ray also contacted Dave Collett, the western field manager for Virginia State Parks, regarding bottle collection.

Unfortunately many of the people contacted through these organizations and facilities, while seemingly promising at first, were unable to assist with the delivery of sufficient water bottles. Many opportunities were missed for bottle collection from games, sporting events, university events, and Orientation during which thousands of water bottles were given to students and parents.  

Due to several delays in the collection of water bottles, and with the deadline coming up, the group ended up having to supplement the bottles collected from the bins with Hokie water bottles that were purchased for a few cents each. It proved to be much more time consuming to collect 50,000 water bottles from students than originally expected.

The water bottles were sorted and cleaned by student volunteers and faculty. Once clean, the architecture foundation studio students pierced the bottles by using a system created by SOVA sculptor Sam Blanchard with a pipe, a block of wood, hammers and nails. The pipe was fixed onto the wood block, the water bottle was slid onto the pipe, and the bottom of the bottles were nailed into to make a hole big enough for the 12 gauge wire to fit into. It was not the initial plan of soldering, it was noisy but effective and still done with the sense of community that Willie intended. The bottle caps were aso pierced using the same method. This exercise went on for a couple of days before Willie arrived so they could start threading with Willie as soon as possible.

When Willie arrived all the bottles had been prepared with holes in them so the threading workshop could begin. Students from the first year studios and other volunteers started by bending the ends of the 12 gauge wire into a loop that prevented the bottles from sliding off. Then in groups the bottles were threaded onto the wire creating long strands of about 10 bottles in length. The last bottle on the strand was topped with a bottle cap and the end of the wire was also turned in creating another loop stop. This is done over the course of two days.  Once there were enough strands, roughly 24 of them were placed side by side and threaded with wire through all the loops at the extremities of the strands to create a panel of water bottles that will become walls of the structure.

During the workshop days Willie gave a few interviews and a lecture at Hancock. Local press and Virginia Tech student media organizations came to see what the workshops were about and talked to Willie and the volunteers.

Students were contacted from Studio Collective - the design journal founded by students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies that releases a themed volume every semester - to see if they would be interested in interviewing Willie. The theme for Fall 2018 was Past + Future, so they interviewed Willie Cole about that theme in relation to his bottle work, his older work, and his process of creating art throughout his life.

Once the “walls” were threaded together, the group began construction on the houses outside on the lawn in front of the Armory building. After working with the materials for awhile it became clear that there were not enough bottle walls. They weren’t rigid and kept bowing out despite attempts to stabilize them with 12 gauge wires and the group lacked the ability and proper materials to execute the proposed building structures.

After taking a few breaks, reworking what was created, and brainstorming different ideas of what we could make the group attempted to create three cubes. The first cube worked well but one of the other cubes was less cooperative and began to bulge as water bottles started spilling out at the seams. That cube was destroyed and absorbed into the second cube and in the end two cube-like structures were created out of ten walls infilled with water bottle strands and loose bottles.

Usually Willie’s bottle works are representative of something recognizable to the audience. A car, chandelier, or human figure for instance. However, because of our circumstances, we ended up with something more abstract and had many people come up to us while we were finishing up the work with questions. What is this? What is it for? What does it mean?

Willie’s answer was “discarded bottles create discarded spirits, and they accumulate and reincarnate as light.” Despite this not being a house or some recognizable object made of water bottles, the work embodies the essence of all of Willie’s work, the spirit and the story of people. It became less about “what is it?” and we were able to focus on how the light reflects through the bottles, the layers, how it was made, the work, the water, the mouths and hands that touched each bottle and how that all created the spirit and presence of the piece.