An Afternoon With Alden Cole

We have many varied and talented members at Da Vinci Art Alliance and would like to share some of their stories and work with you! If you are an artist member in good standing who would be interested in being featured as part of this blog please email us at info@davinciartalliance.org!


Alden at home - consciousworldart.com

Alden at home - consciousworldart.com

Tucked away in a long line of South Philly row homes—each slightly different than the last but, in essence, all the same—Alden Cole is creating his masterpiece. He jovially welcomes me in, a tiny “I Like Ike” pin winking from the collar of his purple polo. A short entrance way opens onto the spectacle within. Part functional sitting room, part museum, nearly every inch of the room is decorated with Alden’s life’s work. There are found antique headboards with intricately painting landscapes, resplendent celestial figure paintings layered in Barnesian fashion up the walls, and rainbow-hued luminaries, these intricate vintage lamps that have been refurbished and embellished, sit twinkling and blinking in every corner. Filled to bursting with art and artifact, one might worry that it is all too much. However, this is not some cluttered closet—repository for things forgotten and unused—this is an intentional collection of objects crafted and assembled with utmost care.

I am ushered into a bright kitchen and talk turns to the meandering journey that led Alden to this South Philadelphian residence exactly thirty years ago. Alden considers his life a series of accidents, some happier than others. As a young gay man growing up on a farm in rural Maine, Alden turned to art as an outlet for his sense of being an outsider in his small town. Intent on becoming a mathematician, it never occurred to him to become an artist. Art, in fact, was not offered in his high school, although Thornton Academy was one of the best in the state.

A well-timed suggestion, or accident Alden might say, prompted Alden to look into art schools—PAFA and RISD, among others—but something about fine art just didn’t seem right. Alden settled on RISD simply for its far-ranging course offerings. Here he could study fashion design, graphics, or architecture while keeping painting, his preferred medium, for himself.

In his youth Alden often sketched women in clothes “perhaps,” he says, “because that’s what I wanted to be.” But at RISD, he struggled with the stereotypes associated with gay men in the fashion industry and thus decided to major in graphics. “The day before registration,” he recalls, “one of my big, burly friends came down the hall and asked what I would be registering for the following day.” Surprised to hear “Graphics” as the response, the friend confessed he had thought Alden was interested in pursuing fashion. Alden revealed his misgivings about being a part of the fashion world, to which the friend asked, wisely, why he should care what anyone else thought? Having no real response to this question and with the true “okay, what the hell!” spirit of youth, into fashion he went.

After a few years amid the fashion fiends of Seventh Avenue in New York, a search for books on spirituality serendipitously led Alden to a bookstore and publishing house with a “Help Wanted” sign in its window. Thus, Alden began illustrating book covers, among many other things, for the Weisers, a husband and wife team who owned the company. Not long afterward the headquarters relocated to Maine and Alden returned to his New England roots. Calling Portsmouth, New Hampshire home for a number of years, Alden worked for the Weirs until it became clear that it was time to move on.

Unsure of his next move and feeling generally “unqualified,” fate stepped in in the form of a friend who invited Alden to come live and work in the city of Philadelphia. “Philadelphia?” Alden thought, “Please, anywhere but there!” What could Philadelphia, most provincial of the great East Coast cities, in his opinion, possibly offer someone accustomed to the pace and possibility of Manhattan? But, adrift as he was in the mire of his own indecisiveness, Alden recognized this offer as the firm, dry ground he sought. And so, on the first of May 1986, a begrudging Alden arrived in the City of Brotherly Love.

Copyright 2015 David Christopher & Catherine Mellina All Rights Reserved - unexpectedphiladelphia.com

Copyright 2015 David Christopher & Catherine Mellina All Rights Reserved - unexpectedphiladelphia.com

All the while, Alden had carried on creating his art. Having seen so many of his lamps and knowing that Alden is a part of Dumpster Divers of Philadelphia, a group of artists working with found objects, I asked if that type of assemblage was his preferred artistic medium. “No,” he replies, “I am still most challenged by painting. For me, to create the illusion of something related to reality on a flat surface is magic.” He calls himself “addicted to the figure,” as the highest form of artistic expression, and hopes, jokingly, that in his lifetime he will be able to create figures that are at all accurate.

Having always considered his art quirky and not commercially viable, Alden remembers being stunned when a friend first offered to buy one of his paintings. At the time “I was giving it away as fast as I could make it,” Alden says of his art. But the friend insisted that Alden put a price on the piece, “I love it,” he said “but I want to pay for it.” This represented a profound turning point for Alden as an artist who started becoming more appreciative and saving of his work.

I ask what he is currently working on and he shows me various pieces of an old harmonium he was recently gifted by a friend. Its black and white keys stand sentry against one kitchen wall, two wooden pieces from its sides recline in the back hallway destined to be refinished and turned into bookshelves, and two foot pedals, smooth and worn into two perfect impressions of the many feet of so many musicians, sit atop a table in his library awaiting the next chapter in their weary history.

Copyright 2015 David Christopher & Catherine Mellina All Rights Reserved - unexpectedphiladelphia.com

Copyright 2015 David Christopher & Catherine Mellina All Rights Reserved - unexpectedphiladelphia.com

I wonder aloud what made Alden stay in Philadelphia after being so unwilling to arrive in the first place. Alden explains, simply, it was Philadelphia that allowed him to become comfortable with himself. His home, so ornamented and yet so cozy, is a testament to that quiet confidence.

Though he may prefer to have his house be his only exhibition space, we at Da Vinci are very fortunate that Alden sought a neighborhood gallery from which to sell his work. Whatever combination of propinquity and happy accidents that led him to our door, we are very pleased to have Alden’s charm and wealth of industry experience on our board of directors. We thank him for his industry, craftsmanship, and excellent baked goods—not to mention his four lovely lamps which softly illuminate Catherine Street from our two front windows.

To see more of Alden's artistic adventures, visit his website at consciousworldart.com