In Dreams

Camera in hand, D'Ette Cole makes images that bridge the gap between night and day


If you ask Austin artist, designer, photographer, graphic designer, and stylist D'Ette Cole about the latest inspiration for her work, you should be ready for a yawn. Literally. As her new, almost encyclopedic website,, illustrates, this woman's mind is buzzing with visualizations, ideas, and designs long past the hours when the rest of us have shut down and moved into sleep mode. And it is precisely sleep that is motivating her now.


"In the past year, almost simultaneously with beginning this new work, I started thinking about the amount of time that we spend asleep ... or that we're supposed to be sleeping," says Cole. "Eight hours is a third of a day, so we're supposed to sleep a third of our life. I've always seen sleep as a chore and drug my feet from the time I was little through adulthood, but I've always had a very active and vivid dream life. I realized that I was living too much in my waking life and not participating as fully as I should in my sleeping/dream life."

On so many levels, Cole's work and life is dreamlike. Whether you've caught her efforts in styling and artistic direction for CDs, books, and magazines featuring Patty Griffin, Patty Loveless, and Shawn Colvin or seen her artwork in MTV's The Real World: Austin or heard about her acclaimed show in Marfa during 2006's Chinati Open House Weekend, you're still seeing only a fraction of what Cole is up to. Famed in vintage circles for her former haunts, including co-ownership in South Congress' funky-finds mecca Uncommon Objects, Cole might be called something of a visual documentarian. She has an eye for the underappreciated and a way of raising found mishmash to artistic heights. Yet to call what she does "creating" would be a misnomer: Cole works with what she is given, produces from what she finds, and by juxtaposing light, texture, materials, and bodies (be they human, furniture, or font), she reveals a potential that seems to have been waiting for her to find it.

D'Ette Cole
D'Ette Cole (Photo courtesy of D'Ette Cole)

While it is difficult to peel away parts of Cole's work from one another, her most recent photography is really something of a pinnacle in her processes to date. Moving from a love of vintage inanimate objects to living, breathing, and revealing human subjects has opened up entirely new ranges of the given for this artist. Cole loves to recount how her experiences photographing people are centered on the decentering role of surprise.

"I think people put up a facade, a public face, their perception of how they want to be seen by the world," she says. "It's also an awareness that they're being observed, especially by a camera.I think that it's impossible for the subject to maintain that front.It's those instances when, for just a second, the camera catches the in-between moments; those are the golden ones. It's an incredible exchange, a spark, that occurs between subject and photographer. It does at times feel intimate in nature, because I think it's hard for people to reveal vulnerability, but that'soften when people are at their absolute most beautiful."


As Cole says, there is intimacy in this body of work, yet at the same time it reminds its viewers that there is distance between what is seen and who is seeing it. Using a layered method of photography that pairs digital cameras and vintage ones (circa 1940s) allows Cole to create visible fingerprints of technologies we now expect to be invisible. The specks that show up on her images are created solely by the imperfections of the vintage lens she employs. In a time when Photoshop could add the same imperfections, there is something essential about these marks being lens-made for Cole's work. They are the reminder that, in waking as in dreaming, we are never given direct access to the "real"; it always comes through filters, through processes, whether they're part of the human visual and/or memory systems, which are so close, so intimate, that we often forget they are in operation.

Beyond this theoretical interpretation of Cole's latest body of photographs are the bodies pictured in her images – from the doll-like white skin of the female models to the bodies of light that seem to wrap every inch of material and space. In the collapsed layers between lens marks, figures, and backdrop, the two-dimensional object quality inherent to photography is accentuated, and the formal qualities of each shot are clear and prominent. Color and texture lead as formal criteria: In Dots, the legs of Cole's model wash forward into the white plane of the vintage French polka-dot umbrella she holds and are heightened in color by the 1970s coral chair that sits behind her. In Alone, the patterning of an intricately tattooed midsection runs into the trailing 1820s French quilt serving as a backdrop. These elisions in line are met by elisions in time throughout Cole's photographs. But even as the work edges toward the timeless, it seems, more richly, to be time-ful. For instance, while a model in Blue holds her hands to her stomach, it is both a vintage gesture and a very contemporary recognition of body and sweat, which merge to give this image a natural beauty that speaks to the current heated conditions of the photograph and the classic elegance of the woman's pose and clothing – all before a modern backdrop of Marimekko fabric. Stripes runs a similar gamut, as the model poses as an early pinup girl might have but in modern shoes and set apart from all other period clues.

While Cole would be thrilled to find the right gallery partnership in Austin for her photography – which, when printed, scales to 40-by-40 inches – each of the pieces mentioned will soon be able to be seen on her new website, and commissioned work is always possible.

On theme with her photographic style, Cole's way of working with what is given results in a very cool mix of timely ingenuity and savvy reuse when it comes to interiors. Collaborating with local craftsmen on recent projects, Cole designed a 15-foot media center from recycled sorghum-based building materials, followed by a forged iron and blown glass chandelier finished in a style that she calls "metal lace." The results are stunning, sustainable objects of "living" art. Other spots of Cole's evolving design work turn up around town in commercial venues: On Second Street, she has been the retail design, merchandising, and styling consultant for both Finch and Wee, and her hand is visible in the inventive layouts and displays for both stores.

"I create the context – set the stage – for the event to occur, whether it's a residence, retail environment, wedding/event, photo shoot, etc.," she says. "When working with clients, it's paramount that my work reflect that client's viewpoint, whether it be a house, a store, an event, a video shoot, etc. I can go in and design and style a space to look like I live there, or 'D-edit-ify' it, as my friends say, but it's so important that my client's interest, tastes, and personalities are reflected in the work that I do. That it absolutely, positively makes sense to them."

A personalized microcosm of her larger projects about town, Cole's own home will be featured in Cottage Living magazine in October. In the meantime, this genre-spanning artist can be found in her front-yard photography studio or anywhere about town with a camera in hand, bridging the gaps she perceives between night and day. "I'm a lucky girl," she says, "and hopefully this isn't just a really good dream sequence."  

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