thirsty while drowning – An Interview with Artist Cole Sternberg

Cole Sternberg, a tenuous grip on arctic dreams, 2020

Villanova University in Pennsylvania is welcoming back one of its most exceptional alumni for a campus-wide exhibition. ‘thirsty while drowning’ is the latest project of California-based visual artist Cole Sternberg and will be on full display throughout Villanova University through January 18, 2023.

The exhibition will flood Villanova’s main complex with Sternberg’s visual commentary on environmental sustainability. Witfully named, ‘thirsty while drowning’ highlights the ever-deepening crisis of climate change in parallel with society’s insatiable urge to develop the Earth’s natural resources.

Cole Sternberg, if you turn your head to the side, the horizon moves upwards, 2017

It features pieces of varying size, each of which combines archetypes of consumerism and nature in their own unique way. Much of the project has been inspired by Sternberg’s personal travels around the world, as well as his time spent aboard the maiden voyage of a shipping vessel across the Pacific Ocean. From oceanic murals wrapping the columns of Bartley Hall to imperfect waterscapes flowing across Jake Nevin Field House’s windows, the exhibition is an awe-inspiring illustration of humanity’s disruptive nature.

Cole Sternberg, thirsty while drowning, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Villanova University.

As Cole Sternberg’s first solo project with Villanova University, ‘thirsty while drowning’ is set to overtake the school’s historic buildings and outdoor spaces with numerous installations and murals. The artist’s “contemporary plein air” paintings will also be showcased in the Villanova University Art Gallery for public viewing.

From painting tiny oil scenes in his dorm room to now installing massive works across campus, Sternberg has expressed great excitement in the lead up to this collaboration. He graduated from the Villanova School of Business in 2001 and considers the chance to come back to share his passion for art “very rewarding.”

‘thirsty while drowning’ opened on November 3, 2022, and will be on display through January 18, 2023. Members of the public are highly encouraged to visit and explore the artist’s unique take on sustainability.

Interview With the Artist

Portrait of Cole Sternberg – Photography by Yeo workshop

What are the pieces in your current exhibition doing? Do they tell a story? Evoke a feeling? Expose a reality? Suggest a solution?

Perhaps they tell the tale of the waters rising and the earth taking itself back from human degradation. Or, they hint at the irony of our collective incapacity. Or, they impart an emotion that could subconsciously inspire viewers to further positive creativity and exploration.

How does the title (thirsty while drowning) contribute to our understanding of the meaning behind the exhibition?

The title declares the intent of the exhibition. It speaks to humankind’s desire for mass capitalist consumption even while facing collective demise from such largess. The play on words expresses that there is still hope and possibility in addressing the situation.

If these artworks had sound effects, what would they sound like?

On occasion, I actually do accompany this style of work with sound, such as the sound of swallows flying en masse, the metal chain of a massive anchor pulling up, or a heartbeat amplified. If they could develop into famed musicians, I’d hope they’d sound like Philip Glass, Max Richter, John Prime, or Kendrick Lamar.

What would it feel to be in these artworks?

It depends on the nerves of the person, but they could feel like wet sandpaper or cashmere.

How might we feel differently about the world after looking at these artworks?

I hope one would be curious as to their composition, methodology, and desires; curious enough to engender further research.

How would you describe this exhibition to someone who has not seen it yet?

The murals drown buildings and tilt the earth’s axis. The paintings erase the human hand and honor the patterns made by the earth.

Who do you think that would really hate these artworks? Why would they hate them?

I don’t think the word ‘hate’ would aptly fit anyone’s feelings about the work. Hate is a strong word that we use to amplify for dramatic purposes, but it rarely captures the correct emotional state. If someone were to feel actual hate for the exhibition, it would be due to their own internal strife, to which I’m unable to speak, but I hope they work it out.

If this exhibition could travel anywhere in the world, where would it go?

The face of the moon, Google’s front page, a sidewalk in Beijing and the Louvre… all at once.

Some creators thrive in solitude. It’s often a necessary ingredient to access their creativity. What about you?

I find it nearly impossible to paint or write with an audience, so solitude is a necessity (or at least tunnel vision and headphones). Otherwise, it is easy to become self-conscious or distracted.

How is your personality reflected in your work?

I think the dark comedic nature of my personality comes through in my work. The work is serious, yet visually appealing. I’m honoring the earth, but speaking to our collective demise. I’m begging for change while smiling.

Who are some of the artists you’ve been influenced by or inspired by?

Bas Jan Ader, Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly, Aldous Huxley, John Kennedy O’Toole, Joan Didion, Herman Melville, David Wallace Wells, Joan Mitchell, Lorna Simpson, and Christian Boltanski come to mind.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

There is no reward in achievement, there is only reward in creation.

What superpower would you have and why?

To affect time for myself and others – freezing it, bending it, traveling through it at varying speeds. Time is everything.