By Beth Treffeisen
Special to the Gazette
Tarps with splatters of paint covered the wooden floors as large canvasses filled with dressed up characters at various black and white social events lined the walls. Located within Robert Freeman’s studio in Waltham, the artwork made the otherwise simple room come to life.
“I want people to feel the painting. As an artist, I am interested to see how it affects people’s hearts rather than their head,” said Freeman, who gave this reporter a behind-the-scene look before his show started in the South End.
Freeman, an African-American artist and long-time Jamaica Plain resident, is showing “New Works” at the Adelson Galleries Boston, at 520 Harrison Ave., from last Friday through Dec. 18.
The show is Freeman’s first solo exhibition in the Boston area in 10 years, as well as his first show at the South End Open Market (SoWa).
Freeman enrolled at Howard University to study art with Lois Jones. He then followed his sister two years later to continue his education at Boston University where he pursued painting with Reed Kay, Richard Yarde, John Wilson, and James Weeks.
Freeman was the art director for the Weston Public Schools from 1973 to 1981, as he lived there with his wife Bettye and three daughters. In 1981 he became Artist in Residence at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham for the next 27 years.
From 1988 to 1994 he taught drawing and painting at Harvard University. For the past 16 years, he has been living with his wife in JP.
“I love it,” said Freeman. He joked saying that his children had been trying to get them to move them there for a long time and at that time, “it was hipper.”
Freeman was born in New York City in 1946, as a son of an insurance man, and moved with his family to Ghana, West Africa in 1956. He lived there for two years until he moved to Washington, D.C., but continued to visit Ghana each summer until 1965.
“Back in the 1950s there was not a lot of opportunity for an African American,” said Freeman. “And that’s the reason why [my father] left.”
Freeman’s experience in this country back then was that middle-class African Americans were excluded from other social gatherings and they formed their own groups. Many of his pieces reflect what those parties looked like.
His work is best known for its vivid and powerful figurative paintings that focus on the interactions between people within the paintings and the observer, confronting questions of identity and culture.
His work Black Tie (1981) is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, as part of a series that focus on the personal conflict he felt as an African-American who grew up in a middle-class life during the racial tensions of the 1960s and 1970s.
Now, 35 years later, Freeman revisits that theme in his show “New Works”. The show features eight oil paintings of African Americans at formal social events, including two large triptychs and one installed as an altarpiece.
The show is inspired by his personal childhood that he spent between two cultures: the Gold Coast, West Africa, now Ghana, and the East Coast of the United States. Even though a lot has changed since that time, such as electing the first African-American President, Freeman said, questions of identity and inclusion still remain.
One difference is the addition of gold leaf to the oil paintings.
“It doesn’t just represent status and wealth like it does here,” said Freeman. “In Ghana it represents warmth, sun, guidance, wholesomeness, and purity.”
Each painting begins by Freeman scribbling on the canvas in black paint until he watches figure emerge and start to communicate with each other. Using a brave use of color, he makes his characters almost appear abstract.
“It’s kind of crazy, but a dialogue between the characters on the canvas begin to form,” said Freeman. “These characters are interested and always one or two are looking out at the viewer. It’s up to the viewer to decide if they are inviting you or if they are rejecting you.”
For more information about Freeman’s work or the show, visit robertfreemanart.com.