Home - T Singapore

The Artist Who Imagined a New Californian Republic

By Renée Batchelor

The artist Cole Sternberg photographed in April 2020 in SY Studio.
The artist Cole Sternberg photographed in April 2020 in SY Studio.

For the Virginia-born, Californian-based visual artist Cole Sternberg the eternal question is that of humanity’s existential quandary. His practice is driven by concepts of humanity, human rights and environmental sustainability. “It is visualised through a variety of formats, from subtle painterly constructions to more aggressive social-political textual commentaries,” says Sternberg. The artist also moves deftly across different mediums including painting, video and writing. “In the spirit of Joseph Beuys’ ‘everything is art’, I jump freely amongst various mediums. Predominately I focus on painting, photography, collage, sculpture, video and writing.”

When asked when he first decided to become an artist, Sternberg says, “This is a tricky moment to pinpoint. We all start as artists and that slowly fades as schooling points us in other directions. I merely kept scribbling into adulthood. So, I guess the decision was made at age four because I found it inherently fulfilling.” Sternberg’s first exhibition was in a bar during law school. “I exhibited a series of paintings that dealt with the movement of light and water within the context of humankind’s chaotic existence. I had no grand expectations of where it could lead, but I kept on painting,” he says. Since then, his pieces have been exhibited at the American University Museum (Washington, DC) and the e105 Gallery (Berlin) among many others, and are part of the permanent collection in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), and the El Segundo Museum of Art (ESMoA).

"high tides" (2020) by Cole Sternberg.
"high tides" (2020) by Cole Sternberg.

As of late, Sternberg has been focussing on pieces where the environment takes centrestage. “I once travelled on the maiden voyage of a shipping vessel from Japan across the Pacific to the United States. On the ship, I created a series of paintings that were exposed to the elements of the ocean. They battled storms, blew in the wind and dragged in water. This became a seminal moment in my career, as the environment started to become the true composer of my symphony,” says Sternberg.  “On the same journey, I shot seventy hours of film which formed a documentary and took about 2,000 photos. We hit heavy storms and the ship rolled thirty degrees in each direction. It was certainly a memorable experience.”

Another recent impactful work of his was a year-long practice, where he would write and mail a letter to the German visual artist Gerhard Richer each day. “The letters were varying in content, but all obeyed a specific set of rules and became a 365-part puzzle to decipher,” says Sternberg.

Sternberg’s current big project is entitled ‘The Free Republic of California’ and envisions what “an enlightened nation could look like through the guise of Californian secession from the U.S.” He has created the entire infrastructure of a nation including a constitution, budget, flag, an imagined history and even a website. “It also features an in-depth educational program, a publishing arm and a clothing line. In public, it has manifested into a museum exhibition, various public installations (including billboards on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and lawn signs across the state) and an activation component for people to engage in specific societal movements. My hope is that it can push our society forward ever so slightly. It has been a massive intellectual and visual challenge, but felt critical in this moment,” says Sternberg.

"go everywhere, be free" (2020) by Cole Sternberg
"go everywhere, be free" (2020) by Cole Sternberg

In Singapore, two of his pieces are currently exhibiting at Yeo Workshop’s new show “Threads and Tensions” which is a collective of stories and histories by artists from around the globe told through the medium of fabric, painting and other textures. “It is great working with the team at Yeo. They are knowledgeable on an incredible range of subjects and work with some amazing artists. For this exhibition specifically, I was excited by their desire to address unifying communal ideas across national borders and mediums,” says Sternberg.

Displaying two artworks at the show, he found a natural alignment between this exhibition and his recent work. “For this exhibition, we looked across my recent body of work and found an inherent connection between the theme and certain thoughts and visuals. From a process perspective my paintings naturally aligned with the textural ‘threads’ and from a conceptual perspective my ideas in regards to sustainability brought the ‘tension’ into focus,” says Sternberg. As to what intrigues him about textiles, the main medium used in this show, “I like that textiles can feel delicate and strong simultaneously. They are a perfect mirror to the environment and humanity."

Photograph: Courtesy of Yeo Workshop"a hopeful moment behind the trees, avoiding their red " (2020) by Cole Sternberg. The piece is currently on display at Yeo Workshop in the exhibition "Threads and Tensions".
"a hopeful moment behind the trees, avoiding their red " (2020) by Cole Sternberg. The piece is currently on display at Yeo Workshop in the exhibition "Threads and Tensions".

What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?

I have a two-year old, so my day begins with her. We have breakfast and playtime until nine when I sneak off to my studio. In the studio, I dance back and forth between projects and pieces. I may paint in the morning, sculpt in the afternoon and write after a dinner break or an entire day could be engulfed by research. Over the last couple of years, my schedule has become pretty busy, so sleep and days off are left to a minimum.

How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?

It depends on how you define creative. I believe every step in the journey has creative components, so perhaps there are ten to twelve hours of creative potential each day.

What’s the worst studio you ever had?

I used to paint large oil paintings in my college bedroom. This room was the size of a full bed, one chair, a tiny desk and one upright human. I could touch the parallel walls. At the time I loved it, but in hindsight it feels cramped.

How do you know when you’re finished with a work?

This is the most critical decision artists have to make. With my paintings and collages it is a subconscious feeling about when the composition is correct that simply comes from practice and education. For writing-based work, they are finished when they survive an edit with no changes.

How many assistants do you have?

I don’t have any assistants. My work is difficult for someone to assist with.

Is there a meal you eat on repeat while you’re working?

Lunch is just a quick snack without much thought because I do not like slowing my process in the middle of the day.

What is the weirdest object in your studio?

There are so many! There is a nine foot slice of a eucalyptus tree, a lock burnt off of a cell at the U.S.’s illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay, my grandparents’ collection of vacation slides and five gallons of vegetable oil… just to name a few.

The artist Cole Sternberg at work.
The artist Cole Sternberg at work.

What music do you play when you’re working?

My standards this year are Beethoven, Max Richter, Philip Glass, Dead Prez and Little Simz.

Are you binge-watching any shows right now?

Unfortunately, in the U.S. we are under attack not only from the pandemic, but also from a collection of science-deniers, fact-disavowers, racists and domestic terrorists… and they all carry guns… so I’m binge watching the news.

If you have windows, what do they look out on?

In Los Angeles, my studio looks over downtown, past the Los Angeles River and to the mountains. On a clear winter day I can see snow on the peaks. In Santa Ynez, my view is of rolling hills speckled by coast oaks. I’m lucky to be surrounded by the beautiful miracle that is California.

What do you bulk buy with most frequency?

A certain Payne’s grey watercolour. I make my own watercolours too, but this one specific Payne’s grey is the perfect blend.

What’s your worst habit?

Eating meat.

What embarrasses you the most?

Hearing my own voice.

Do you exercise?


What are you reading?

I’m currently reading “The Soul of Man under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Márquez and re-reading  “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. Recently, I finished “So Much Blue” by Percival Everett, “Falter” by Bill McKibbon, “On Fire” by Naomi Klein and “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace Wells.

What’s your favourite artwork (by someone else)?

“Fifty Days at Iliam”’ by Cy Twombly.

Cole Sternberg's two artworks are currently exhibiting at Yeo Workshop's show "Threads and Tensions" until 28 February 2021.

T magazine

T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore’s best videos: digital house tours from around the world, behind-the-scenes looks at cover shoots and more.