The Joy of Painting

At 91, abstract expressionist Donald Cole ’53 still creates inspired art
by John Manbeck ’53
At age 91, the abstract expressionist painter Donald Cole ’53 has a creative spark that still burns brightly. He paints daily in the studio he shares with wife, Joan Wortis, a visual artist, in a woodsy art colony on Washington state’s Vashon Island and this spring enjoyed a career retrospective of his work at a contemporary art gallery in Seattle.
Donald Cole
Photo: Mark Milroy
Abstract Impressionist Donald Cole ’53 is known for his bright, dynamic acrylic paintings.
Donald Cole, Precision and Freedom: Celebrating Six Decades of Art at ArtXchange featured Cole’s bright, dynamic acrylic paintings from the 1970s to the present, with prices for some pieces reaching into the five figures.

In those six decades, Cole has won international awards for his art, secured two National Endowment for the Arts grants and taught at Auburn University, the Parsons School of Design, Fashion Institute of Technology and Kanazawa International Design Institute in Japan.

For a New York City teen who arrived at Bucknell in 1949 intent on becoming an engineer, artistic success might seem an unlikely outcome. But soon after arriving at Bucknell, Cole began to envision a different path.

“On the first day of class in the engineering building, I saw a man painting in a small studio,” he says. “His art looked interesting and very good to me.” Cole introduced himself to Bruce Mitchell, Bucknell’s artist-in-residence.

While Cole remained a civil engineering major, he found creative outlets: studying Mitchell’s paintings, joining the Bucknell Jazz Club, which Mitchell advised, and working backstage in Cap and Dagger theatre productions.

After graduation, he enlisted in the Navy, served in the Korean War, then worked as an engineer while following Mitchell’s advice to develop skills in calligraphy and painting. When Mitchell invited him to return to Bucknell to share a studio, Cole realized that art attracted him more than engineering. After pursuing an MFA at the University of Iowa, Cole returned to New York in the 1970s, where his career as an abstract expressionist quickly gained momentum.

Cole’s respect for the environment and interest in cultural, social and political issues have remained constant throughout his long career. He still relishes, he says, “the joy of painting and creating as my social, psychological and ethical response to the world.”

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Watch a Video About Cole’s Art