Kevin Cole, M.F.A. '85: From Childhood Art Therapy to the Smithsonian
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

Artist and educator, Kevin Cole, M.F.A. ’85, started drawing at the kitchen table as a powerful tool to cope with daily struggles at school. (Photo credit: Tom Meyer)

Artist Kevin Cole, M.F.A. ‘85, has created more than 47 public art works, including a 15-story Coca-Cola Centennial Olympic mural he was commissioned to create for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. A challenge he completed without even touching the wall. 

Although the culmination of this two-year, massive project was magical, the true magic and power of art began in Cole's youth as a tool to cope with his struggles at school.

“When I was 11 years old, my mother encouraged me to make art whenever I had a bad day at school,” he shared. “Other students would tease me about my stuttering. She would always say, ‘Go make Mama a picture.’”

Today, Cole is inspired by music and social and political issues like voting, homelessness and education. His artwork resides in more than 4,500 public, private and corporate collections, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., the Hartfield Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. 

The Olympic mural stretched across 8,200 square feet of an Atlanta building and highlighted portraits of diverse people in addition to an outline of the Coca-Cola bottle. 

His piece, "Increase Risk with Emotional Faith," in the Smithsonian, a gift of Greg and Yolanda Head, transforms a story of African American men lynched for their attempt to vote. It incoporates abstract neckties as motifs, representative of the killed men's neckties that were wrapped around the noose from which they were hung.

Growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Cole was interested in art, African American history, football, basketball and science. At 18 years old, his grandfather shared this lynching story which occurred at a tree on his property. It left a lasting impression on Cole and now on millions of Smithsonian visitors. 

Cole received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and a Master’s degree in art education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before coming to NIU for his Master of Fine Arts degree, where he was a Rhoten A. Smith Scholar. Cole acknowledged the extraordinary teachers he had along the way. 

“I saw four men who looked like me, and they were successful artists and educators at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff,” he remarked. “Professors Tarrance Corbin, Henri Linton, Earnest Davidson and John Howard helped shape me into the person I am today. They, along with my NIU professors—David Bower, whom I am still in touch with, and the late Ed Syrek—taught me about how to move in and out of the art world as an artist and an educator."

An accomplished NIU student, most of Cole's artwork from his graduate thesis exhibition was sold before it even opened.

Cole’s success continued in both his art and his career in education. Moving to Atlanta, Georgia, he spent 30 years teaching in the Atlanta public school system. His artwork has been featured in more than 500 exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad, and he has received 31 grants and fellowships, 66 awards in art and 51 awards in teaching. Cole has been featured in more than 141 publications, including Forbes and The Guardian in Paris, France. Georgia Trend magazine named him one of the Most Notable Georgians in 2023. In 2018, he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

“My faith in God, my parents, siblings, children and church, combined with my artist friends and mentors, all keep me going and contribute to my success,” Cole shared. “I am truly blessed to be able to get up every morning and decide which of three studios I want to work in on my four acres of Georgia land. Success for me is doing what I enjoy—creating artwork and sharing it with others.”

As a full-time artist and visiting artist around the country, Cole describes his work as “mixed media pieces that explore the relationship between sight, sound, and color with various African patterns and symbols.”

Dispelling the misconceptions about artists being “starving,” Cole says, “There is no such thing as a starving artist; there is a starving lazy artist.”

His words are a reminder that success is not just about talent but also about putting in the work.

For more of Kevin Cole’s artwork, visit