Virginia Tech students are working this week to construct several structures out of about 50,000 plastic water bottles.

Students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) are joining in on a project with visiting artist Willie Cole, a self-described “prolific brainstormer.”

Cole, a New Jersey native, has created distinctive art pieces using high-heeled shoes, irons, and water bottles. His unique artwork has been shown in the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other exhibits around the country.

His current project to use plastic bottles for building allows Virginia Tech students to learn about sustainability, recycling, and making something new out of the old. It is happening as Virginia Tech celebrates Sustainability Week, a partnership with the community that highlights sustainability efforts.

Since last week, Virginia Tech students have been cleaning and punching holes in water bottles inside the Media Building and the Armory to help Cole construct his new piece.

The original plan was to build one large house outdoors, but rainy weather nixed that idea. Now, Cole and the students are improvising with ideas for various kinds of structures, including smaller houses, said Kevin Concannon, professor of art history and director of the School of Visual Arts at Virginia Tech. The buildings will go up inside the Armory and likely moved outside to the Media Building lawn.

“I think it’s really cool to reuse things, and with this project you get to see how water bottles can be used,” said Jasmine Weiss, a first-year student who is working on the bottle project with her architecture studio.

Plastic Bottle Project 2
Virginia Tech students prepare plastic bottles for a project with visiting artist Willie Cole.

“Once I began collecting water bottles, the awareness of recycling surfaced,” said Cole. “So, the work now is pretty much about inspiring people to collect bottles. It’s like they are recycling and they don’t even know it.”

Cole’s artwork is not only about sustainability but inclusion and providing his audience with a communal experience. He especially wants the CAUS students who are working on the project with him to have a bonding experience and enhance their collaboration skills.

Shanice Aga, a Virginia Tech graduate student, was introduced to the project over the summer and decided to turn it into an independent study this semester. Aga said that this project is important from a standpoint of starting a conversation about diversity and inclusion by putting contemporary public artwork on display.

“It is a positive step toward making the campus feel more inclusive by adding to the visual range of art and design that students encounter while walking around Blacksburg,” said Aga.

The bottle project is sponsored by CAUS and its four schools; Virginia Tech Facilities Department; the Black Cultural Center; and the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. The collaboration of schools, organizations, and students to support this project showcases Cole’s intent in his artwork.

Cole has been recycling and creating art for many years now. Each piece has a different story and background behind it. His bottle piece will not be his only art on display at Virginia Tech.

Cole will showcase multiple pieces from past collections at the Armory Gallery on Thursday, Sept. 20, for the exhibit's opening reception. The exhibit runs through Oct. 20. Cole also will give a talk at Hancock Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m.

Cole is comfortable working with various mediums and with other people. In terms of his next piece or collection, Cole said he is ready for inspiration anywhere and anytime.

“Everything I’ve done in the past, I’ll do better in the future and, hopefully, something new comes along, but it’s not planned out,” said Cole. “I’m living based on inspiration and the potential for things that spark my interest, but I really don’t know until it happens.”

— Written by Haley Cummings