Artists bring ‘Carnival’ to Art Walk

The carnival is coming to town, and Claremonters have Dee Marcellus Cole to thank for it.

The 85-year-old artist is the primary focus of “Dee Marcellus Cole and Carnival Seekers,” which opens tomorrow at Claremont Museum of Art with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m.

The exhibit features her vibrant, self-proclaimed “faux-folk” wood and layered paper sculptures and work from seven other artists selected by Ms. Cole: Johnnie Dominguez, Cathy Garcia, Sandy Garcia, Karen and John Neiuber, Christian Ornelas and Dan Romero.

“Carnival” is clearly a celebration, but it’s no “carnivale,” mind you. “Catherine [McIntosh, CMA’s Board Secretary] said ‘Shall we spell it this way?’” Ms. Cole said. “And I thought, ‘Hell no, because that’s fancy,’ We’re talking about not fancy.”

That down-to-earth attitude is clearly reflected in the artist’s vibrant, Latin and South American-influenced work, some of it quite large. Ms. Cole, who is five-foot-nothing, joked about her six-foot-plus creations. “I can’t help myself but make large sculptures. I was told once that I had an inferiority complex. But I never think of myself as small.”

“Carnival” will feature 10 of Ms. Cole’s large sculptures and three smaller pieces. “I said, let’s do something for fun!” she said of the genesis of the show. “It’s not fine art. It’s people art. I invited folk artists, and that’s the premise of what it’s about.”

Folk artists, in her view, incorporate found and everyday objects into their art. They’re mostly self-taught, and few have art degrees. “And they don’t care where they show or sell. It’s in them: They can’t stop.”

Ms. Cole, born in Nebraska, has three grown daughters. She has traveled extensively throughout Mexico and Latin America and to Australia and Bali. She’s had numerous solo shows over the years, influencing and earning the respect and admiration of generations of artists local and far flung. She earned a master’s degree in art from the Claremont Graduate School in 1984 and taught at University of La Verne for 12 years.

By her own definition Ms. Cole is no “folk artist,” hence the “faux-folk” moniker, but that hasn’t stopped her from promoting those that do fit that description. She has works from all seven of the artists featured in “Carnival” in her personal collection. The youngest of the bunch, Christian Ornelas, is just 20.

She was modest when asked what “Carnival” might do for her own profile, but enthusiastic about what it could mean for her fellow artists. “I can hardly wait to see what they will go on and do,” she said. “That’s exciting to me.”

The down-to-earth, exuberant art supporter—especially for her beloved Pomona Arts Colony—Ms. Cole has been making art since she was a child.

“I’ve always been creative,” she said. “I’ve always thought differently, and kids liked to play with me because I’d say, ‘Let’s pretend!’ and they’d go along with it. And I’m still doing it.”

An Upland resident since 1960, Ms. Cole has lived in her current home since 1971, gradually populating it, inside and out, with her ever-expanding body of work. Her house is by now easily recognizable in her tidy but otherwise nondescript Upland neighborhood. In recent years she’s begun giving “Dee-tours” to art lovers and art curious folks drawn in by the work that has made its way to her yard and even onto her roof. Her property has really become her own personal gallery. “Exactly,” she said. “It is interesting.”

She has long been a champion of Pomona’s art scene, and served on the dA’s first board of directors at its formation in 1984. In 2015 the dA Center for the Arts gave her its second annual “Goddess of Pomona” award.

“What I like about the [Pomona] Arts Colony is that there are people there from all different ethnicities, and all different incomes,” Ms. Cole said. “And they’re all ages. That’s what attracts me.”

Asked—respectfully of course—how it felt to be an elder spokeswoman for the Pomona art scene, she was typically passionate. “I didn’t seek it out. It just happened. It feels fine. I love the attention! I find now that people are coming to me.”

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