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20/20 Vision

Inside The World Of “Outsider Artist” Van Freeman

All photographs by Jefferson Jacskson Steele

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 2/23/2005

Even knowing what to expect, a visitor to Van Freeman’s home near Druid Hill Park, at 2714 Parkwood Ave., is struck by the hugeness of his art. The house itself is the artwork. Nearly every interior surface—walls, floors, and many of the ceilings—is encased in mosaics of glass, tile, wood, metal, and other found materials. There are wall hangings, sculptures, and museum-sized installations throughout the building. Freeman’s restless hands and inspired mind have reimagined even the refrigerator.

“It still works,” he says of the stark box armored with rusty plates that squats in his kitchen.

Freeman, 6-foot-2 and sinewy, with a shaved head, an easy smile, and an infectious air of joy, greets a recent visitor dressed in sweats with colorful paint stains splattered around his belly. Gospel music blares from a portable stereo deep inside the house.

Ushering his guest through the hallway lined in reds and golds and devotional sculpture-collage, Freeman points to the works dominating the opposite wall of what in an ordinary home would be—were it furnished—a living room. HOPE, the painted bits spell out in one three-foot-wide mosaic. FAITH reads the one below it. Elaborate crosses fashioned of wood scraps painted bright gold surround the pieces. The floor is paved with glass and mirror shards.

“It’s all three-quarters of an inch thick,” Freeman tells a visitor stepping gingerly upon the reflecting pool of mortar and glass. “It’s safe.” And then begins the first lesson of Freeman’s art: why the broken glass.

“I used it to show the different areas of our lives,” he says, “the brokenness that we all come through. The lost jobs, the disappoint[ing] marriage. But we all come through it. That forms the strong base to grow from and build on.”

The Baltimore native has faced some setbacks in his 44 years, around half of which he has spent wandering around America. It took him a long time to discover his calling.

Looking back on his life so far, he could say that his stint in the mid-1990s taking care of a good friend with AIDS was the turning point. Or he could say it was the day in 2001 he was evicted from his Los Angeles bungalow, the aftermath of which he calls “miraculous.”

The arc of Freeman’s life, in one sense, is that of a man searching the world for something. But his is not a story of redemption, per se: “I was never lost,” he says. He was raised a Christian and has remained one, rock-solid devoted, from his native Baltimore to Washington to Phoenix, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Kentucky, Ohio, back to Los Angeles, and finally back in his West Baltimore neighborhood, where he returned from L.A. in the fall of 2001, driving a rickety Ford Taurus with three of his artworks inside.

That cross-country move, launched on the spur of the moment, was the beginning of Van Freeman’s fame as a visionary artist.

 

By Aug. 28, 2001 Freeman had lived, in the bungalow at 2911 Reservoir St., in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, for about three years. He worked restoring and selling vintage footwear at Remix Shoes, a funky boutique on Beverly Boulevard in Hollywood.

“I would say he was better used as a salesperson than as a restorer,” says Phil Heath, the store’s co-owner. “You don’t really need a guy with a great personality—and good looking—to restore old shoes.” Freeman’s charisma helped land him an appearance on Rosanne Barr’s short-lived talk show in 1998, fitting Barr and Patti LaBelle with Remix shoes.

But by the summer of 2001, Freeman was way behind on his $550 monthly rent. His landlord, Richard Padron, told Freeman that he owed nearly $4,000. “I wasn’t working for the shoe place constantly,” Freeman says. “There was just so many old shoes to refurbish.”

For months, ever since an artist friend had given him a box of Mexican tiles, Freeman had been churning out artworks—crosses of tile or nails, wound twigs, and wood. He worked day and night, often singing hymns in his full baritone or blasting gospel music from a boom box into the wee hours. Neighbors complained.

Freeman had a web site on which he offered some of the pieces for sale. But he wasn’t selling much. So he devised another plan.

“That’s why I went on The Price Is Right,” Freeman says. “I was so far behind in the rent, I thought, I’ll just go on The Price Is Right and win $10,000. But the girl before me won the $10,000 game, and I ended up winning this gas grill. So I was like, ‘God, this isn’t supposed to happen this way.’” He went on other game shows, too, but he’d “always win a watch or a year’s subscription.”

The final eviction notice came as a surprise.

“The day he evicted me I finally sold some art,” Freeman remembers. “I was driving toward [my landlord’s] house to give him the money—he’s driving the opposite way. I spotted him going by, and I say, ‘Dick!’ and I’m waving the money out the window—it’s $1,500—and he always took the money before, even if I only had $500.

“So I catch up with him, and he looks at me and shakes his head: ‘I don’t want it. You’re about to be evicted. They’ll be here in 20 minutes.’

“I asked God what to do,” Freeman recalls. “And he tells me, ‘Take three pieces [of art] and go.’ The Spirit comes over me—I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you Jesus! Glory!’ The sheriff is there, and Dick and his assistant. The sheriff asks when I’ll be back. I tried to answer and ‘hallelujah!’ comes out.”

 

The columns in the entryways of Freeman’s Baltimore home are coated with bits of stone and tile. The mosaic decorations often spell out words: persuaded, determined.

“It keeps me believing,” Freeman says. “These encourage me to keep doing what I do.”

This theme of constantly renewed inspiration suffuses every action Freeman takes. He leaves the front window looking out onto Parkwood Avenue unshaded, without curtains, and lights the interior pieces in a bid to inspire “young people to do what they want to do with their lives,” he says. “Someone might see that word, hope, on the wall and believe.”

Freeman does his best to live the belief and freedom he exemplifies with his art. He takes license to do what he will, seizing from the world a personal exemption from all things mundane. He makes plans to meet with a reporter at a Bible study class he takes at his church—part of his long-term goal of becoming an ordained minister. Will the pastor mind a stranger sitting in on the class?

“He won’t mind,” Freeman declares. “I’m Van Freeman.”

And, of course, the Rev. Harold Carter Jr. doesn’t mind.

Freeman has taken up his spiritual life in Baltimore at the New Shiloh Baptist Church, a few blocks from his home. It is a huge, impressive place, led by a dynasty of Harold Carters—senior and junior. Freeman sings, does voice-overs for the church’s radio programs, and has written and produced a play for Black History Month, called Voices. Two Van Freeman crosses—each the size of a standard doorway—grace the church’s foyer just outside the sanctuary.

During the class, Freeman sits in the back row next to Kevin Couser, a powerfully built businessman in a sharp suit. The two dominate class discussion during a break, when Freeman makes the claim that God hardened the disciples’ hearts during the day leading up to Christ’s crucifixion—just as God had once done to Pharaoh. Couser disagrees, “’cause hardening hearts is punishment.”

“Haaaaa!” Van exclaims, having unearthed the relevant passage, John 12:40: “‘He has blinded their eyes and he hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.’”

“You win,” Couser concedes.

Freeman then airs his theory about the meaning of the Exodus story, in which God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” thus blinding him to the suffering of both the Israelites and to his own nation. “I believe that he hardened Pharaoh’s heart because he loved Pharaoh,” Freeman says.

“But he killed his son,” Couser protests.

“He was working with Pharaoh,” Freeman insists. “Not his son. I believe there was a lot of love and mercy in the Old Testament.”

Here the discussion takes on the question at the center of religion, faith, and epistemology for several millennia: What is the nature of free will?

“I still say God wants to be surprised,” Freeman says. “He wants to see what you’re going to do.”

“He knows what you’re gonna do!” Couser exclaims. “This ain’t no American Idol!”

The class laughs.

The younger Rev. Carter returns shortly thereafter. He doesn’t buy Freeman’s interpretation, explaining that God, in Exodus, hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to demonstrate his power. “The disciples were doing God’s will, [but] Pharaoh was used as an instrument [of God], against his will,” Carter explains. “I don’t know about the love aspect of it. Anyone with Van?”

Silence.

Van Freeman gives all credit to the Lord for his artwork. But he could not exist in a world where God simply forced people to do his bidding. Freeman knows in his heart that God wants to be surprised. And so he does everything in his power to surprise the Almighty.

 

“Let’s see—Van was devilish,” his mother, Rosemary Freeman, says. “When he was 6, he would take his belly and push his brother out of the way and start laughing.” He is also a generous man, she says, giving away his things—furniture, a computer, recently—to those more needy.

When first asked to describe his second son, Nathaniel Freeman says, “Well-mannered, educated, brought up middle class.” He pauses a beat then and says, “Then you let him go.”

Nathaniel Freeman talks over a sparsely stocked 20-foot glass bakery case at the Stop Shop and Save in Mondawmin Mall, where he works as a baker, 6 to 10 a.m., seven days a week. The elder Freeman has been a baker for 58 years—since he was a teenager—through his service in the 101st Airborne, stationed in Kentucky (“We baked for the whole division, 18,000 men”), to this day.

Van Freeman, as a boy of 10 or 12, was “real disciplined,” his father says. He makes it clear that no other behavior would have been permitted. “He’d say, ‘Yes, sir.’ How many kids do that?”

The young Van Freeman was a standout in elementary school, emceeing his graduation ceremony, according to his mother. But within a few years he’d become frustrated by the rigid structure of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which he quit. He attended Douglass High School after leaving Poly, but that was too easy.

“I could stay out three months, go to school and take the test, and get 100,” Van Freeman says. “I was kinda grown. I think I was too smart for myself. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I thought clothes was the thing. Fashion. Going to D.C., hanging out.”

Freeman says he never graduated high school. He worked for an aunt who owned a small grocery store, then at an expensive downtown men’s store. Later he took an associate’s degree from Community College of Baltimore, and “played around for a couple of years” at Morgan State University.

At about that time, Nathaniel Freeman lent his son a house he owned on Reisterstown Road, where Van lived while attending college. “I knocked down all the walls,” Van Freeman says. “I wanted to make it like a New York loft.” He’s still amazed that his father didn’t yell at him.

Nathaniel Freeman remembers. “He exposed the bricks inside,” he says. “They needed to be pointed up.” Nathaniel says he sold that house, after re-dry-walling the interior. “It was alright,” he says.

The elder Freeman ticks off his son’s achievements during his stint as a young adult out and about in Baltimore. He was editor of his school newspaper, his father points out, plus host of a TV program on Channel 45 (Street Scenes) and various radio shows on WEAA, WBGR, and the classical station WBJC.

It was a lot for a young man to handle, Nathaniel Freeman says: “I think he had so many things coming at him, his basket wasn’t big enough, you get what I’m sayin’?”

What is he saying?

“He moved to California.”

 

Van Freeman says that in 1987 he had a plane ticket to Hawaii. On the way there he stopped in Phoenix to visit his older brother, Michael. While there, Van met “the only black girl in the bar” and decided to follow her to California instead.

Michael Freeman remembers that visit. “He visited me for like two weeks, maybe a month,” he says. “Shortly thereafter he went to California. He stayed there for a long time.”

Actually, that first California trip was short-lived. “She said she had everything,” Freeman recalls of his paramour. “She had nothing. I panicked.”

He took an apartment on Hollywood Boulevard, cashed in his Hawaii ticket, and got two jobs—working in a Popeye’s and as a doorman. Before long he’d run out of funds and left for Houston.

“I had a pecan tree right outside my place there,” Freeman remembers. He got a job with a government-funded job training agency. But within a few months, he says, he couldn’t stand the weather. “I kinda just left the job that day,” he says. “It probably wasn’t fair to the people at the Houston Job Training Partnership Council. “So that night, out dancing, I met some people who were moving to Atlanta.”

Freeman was in Atlanta by midafternoon the following day.

“I got there and saw all these black people downtown, and I was like, ‘Wow! Look at this,’” he says. Two days later he had an apartment and a job at a restaurant called the Abbey. “It’s in an old church,” Freeman says. “We’re walking around serving people in monks’ robes.”

Then things went bad. He says he’d rather not talk about it, out of respect for his mother. He moved again, this time to rural Kentucky, for a short time. Then he worked at an interior design firm in Cincinnati.

“He came and worked for a while—might have been in the summer,” says Jim Jones, who runs the interior design firm Jim Jones and Associates.

Jones says he met Freeman at a dinner party with a friend and hired him soon after. “I never hire people without knowing a little bit about their background,” Jones says. “But I just knew that he was just an honest person. He just fit right in.”

Freeman did some of the heavy lifting, moving furniture, arranging art. He quickly learned how to do some of the more skilled work as well, Jones says, recalling an elaborate chair that Freeman refinished.

“I think he’s gifted,” Jones says. “I think he just has that touch. I live with my work—he’s the same way.”

Freeman’s easy confidence was in evidence then, too. “With clients—sometimes he would start talking and they’d forget that I was the person he was working for,” Jones says. “They’d think I worked for him!”

But soon the peripatetic Freeman was back on the road, this time headed west. In the 1990s, Freeman lived all over Southern California, working various jobs and making the club scene at night. But his sensibilities began to shift, he says.

“Six months before I moved into the house in L.A.,” Freeman says, “I had this friend, dying of AIDS. I said, ‘Nooo, you can’t die!’

“I moved in, I prayed for him, I fed him. In six months he gained 50 pounds. He regained his will to live.”

That friend, Paul, was co-owner of Remix Shoes. He was also an artist, making furniture from bundles of sticks, according to Remix’s other co-owner, Phil Heath. “I imagine Van got some inspiration from him,” Heath says. Paul is still alive and living in Los Angeles, though he could not be reached for this story.

Freeman got more than inspiration from Paul: “When I left him, to get that house [in Silver Lake], he gave me boxes of Mexican tile.”

 

Ron Stringer, a critic for LA Weekly, lived up the road from Freeman’s Silver Lake bungalow. “Before I knew anything about the house, I was on Van’s route to the bus stop,” Stringer says. “I think when I first met him I said, ‘Nice baritone.’ He was singing full-throated. He sang in a church. Probably practicing his part.”

This ebullience was not constant, Stringer says: “Van had upswings and downswings—he’d be doing stuff for days and days. And then it would shut down. The door was either open or it was shut, and it would shut and the house would get quiet.”

The house got quiet, too, when Freeman was evicted.

Freeman returned to Baltimore with just three pieces of his art. He left everything else behind—all the art, the $2,500 gas grill he’d won on The Price Is Right, even his dog, whom he gave to a neighbor. He told no one where he was going.

Once Freeman was gone, his landlord, Richard Padron, hired a crew to return his rental property to its normal state—which required taking out the walls in which Freeman had embedded mosaics of tile, glass, and pennies. A neighbor, Marilyn Downey, saw the stuff coming out of the house and offered Padron three month’s rent if he would cease “renovation.” Padron accepted. He later told the Los Angeles Times: “I don’t understand that kind of art. I could not appreciate his work. But these other people do.”

In short time the house—and the artist behind it—became a cause célèbre in Los Angeles culture circles. Neighbors didn’t know where Freeman had gone, nor what to make of his creations. The Los Angeles Times ran two stories, speculating on the mystery and comparing Freeman and his work to the famous Watts Towers, built between 1921 and 1954 by an unschooled artist named Sam Rodia, who then left them and never returned.

Downey opened the house, and a Times reporter invited John Outterbridge, who directed the Watts Towers Art Center from 1975 to ’92, to give his reaction. “Here is an opportunity to meet a personality,” Outterbridge said, according to the Times. “And to follow through. And to possibly salvage someone’s essence. Because you can tell that this is an unusual sensibility. We don’t know what it is, or what it could be.”

Back in Baltimore, Van Freeman knew nothing about this. He had never met Marilyn Downey, did not know Outterbridge.

Three months after he returned to Baltimore, Freeman says God told him to “call L.A.”

“So I called my old friend with the shoe store,” Freeman says. “He said, ‘Van Freeman?! You won’t believe what’s happened!’”

 

This notice from the outside world, and from the art world, Freeman calls a miracle. He returned to the old house in Silver Lake. He shipped some pieces back to Baltimore. He basked in notoriety. His family did, too.

“The publicity was kind of well-deserved,” Michael Freeman says. “He’s like that anyway. To me he’s always been like kind of a star. He’s got that appearance, and that personality. He’s always been gifted. Always been extremely personable and extremely sociable. When you see a star or whatever, he fits with them. Where I might be mesmerized by stars, he seems like one of them.”

Nathaniel Freeman, who carries a folder filled with the business cards of prominent people including Mayor Martin O’Malley and Gov. Robert Ehrlich, appreciates his son’s achievement as well. Even if he doesn’t quite understand it.

“You know that museum in California,” he begins. “The Gotti—that’s not it.” He launches into a frustrated explanation: The museum founded by the oil millionaire whose son was kidnapped, “and they asked for a $3 million ransom, but he wouldn’t give it, so they sent him a finger, and he still wouldn’t give it.

“You’ll know his name as soon as you hear it. [Van’s] work is in there,” Nathaniel Freeman says. “They don’t put nickel and dime stuff in there.”

That’s the J. Paul Getty Museum, the West Coast’s pre-eminent art temple. While Freeman’s work is not displayed there, a Getty-sponsored fellowship for arts journalists put his California home in its 2002 curriculum, says Sasha Anawalt, director of the University of Southern California Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program. (She adds that she also bought one of Freeman’s artworks.)

Freeman still speaks reverently of Downey, his inadvertent patron, and has not a critical word to say even about his old landlord. This even though many of his possessions—including some artwork and that gas grill he won on TV—were missing when he returned to the house in late 2001. In fact, he lived in California for another two years before returning to Baltimore for good in 2003.

Today the old house in Silver Lake is no longer what it was.

“The place has been renovated,” says Ron Stringer, the former neighbor. “It’s returned to normal, there are blinds on the windows, the doors have been replaced. The only vestige of Van that I’ve seen—there was a palm tree, or a low-growing ‘pinapular’ plant in the front yard. That’s been cut back, but the base of it is still painted blue.”

 

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and curator of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, learned of Van Freeman several years ago after the California house made news. She says she was thrilled to tour Freeman’s West Baltimore house last year. “The whole transformation of one’s own nest,” she says. “The theme is the re-creating of the Garden of Eden. I love his colors, and who wouldn’t want to have a floor like that?”

She suggests that Van and his father open a “visionary B&B,” with Nathaniel providing the baked goods at the Parkwood Avenue home.

Nathaniel Freeman recalls meeting Hoffberger after his son’s art star rose. Told of her suggestion, he scoffs: “Yeah,
that’s her.”

Van Freeman is not blind—nor is he indifferent—to his market.

There is a rambling geometric burst of color hanging in the small foyer of his house. “This is called ‘The Individuality of Being Together,’” Freeman says, adding that he had it shipped from L.A. The name springs from the work’s construction—and from the aim of the piece.

“I had done all these pieces separately—they were just laying around,” Freeman explains, pointing to the foot-square segments. “So I decided to put them together. I was finding that the power of two is much greater than the power of one. . . . And so, if I put together 50, this could be amazing in a big space where it could breathe!”

And so Freeman illustrates the complex mix of devotion, compositional flair, and raw marketing savvy that makes him such a rarity in the world of “outsider art.” The small pieces might have retailed for $100 each. But the larger piece is aimed squarely at a larger market—the serious collector, the kind of person with a wall big enough to seem like infinity, space to let it “breathe.” The kind of wall possessed by someone like, say, Hoffberger.

Hoffberger approves. “I felt for a long time that what the dealers were selling was this kind of quasi-illiterate black Southern [kitsch],” she says. Part of the value of “outsider” or “visionary” art seemed to reside in the imagined innocence of the artists, she notes—that and the fact that their work could be bought for peanuts. And yet that aesthetic, that market, is often ignored the many untrained artists who do understand something about the art world.

“We live in a culture, or arrangement, that everything ends up as a commodity,” says John Outterbridge, who met Freeman when he returned to California after the Los Angeles Times articles on the Silver Lake house. As a fellow assemblage artist, Outterbridge says he understands firsthand the difficulty inherent in making a living creating art like Freeman’s.

“The way that he examines possibility, the way that he examines life, the way that the language of his work impregnates possibility in others. . . . He is really fortunate if he can translate that into the marketplace,” Outterbridge says. “Many times our kind of work doesn’t translate into the marketplace.

“We wrestle with that all the time—how do you support a family?” he continues. “It’s difficult to do it without burlesquing your art. In Chicago, 1963, I was a bus operator, train operator. But I was always about the business of making, making, making things. It was a spiritual meditation. And every so often someone would ask, ‘How much for this?’”

Freeman has a web site (www.vanfreeman.com) showcasing some work for sale, but it hasn’t been updated since his move back to Baltimore. About a month ago Freeman gave away his computer—“to a needy student,” he says. But the work sells, even if only sporadically marketed.

Mike Locke, a former California neighbor of Freeman’s and president of the neighborhood association in Silver Lake, owns three of Freeman’s artworks. “They’re all kind of showpieces,” he says. “We bought one about a year after we moved in—we were redoing the house. That was about two years ago.

“Then there were a couple other times when he kinda needed the money.”

There is the question of money: How does one live this way?

“Wow. Wow. You pretty much don’t. You pretty much don’t live on art,” Freeman says with a lilt in his voice. “You pretty much just make it. To be honest with you, every bill is past due. And I’m a couple months past due on the mortgage.”

Freeman does not sound worried as he confesses that his mortgager—the previous owner of the house, who financed Freeman’s purchase of it—has been calling. “I gotta call him back,” he says. “You just kinda believe that eventually that this thing is going to work out. With me I gotta factor in the faith factor.”

Upstairs, more words: lion, protector, jehova, worship—all spelled out in glass bits. “What does this one say? I forget sometimes,” Freeman says, looking at the floor of a bedroom without a bed. “presence. deliverer.”

The room is dominated by life-sized wooden stick figures dangling from chains. The installation runs from the floor to the rafters, more than 10 feet high. Freeman has titled it “The Negro and the Land.”

“These figures represent the people who were taken from this land,” he explains. One of the figures is splayed, hanging by one leg. “His world was turned upside-down,” he says.

Freeman’s voice is stern and knowing, as if narrating a Ken Burns documentary or an Alex Haley saga: “They were taken to another land. Running from things they did not understand. Killed.”

Freeman smiles as his stern voice booms.

“With all that, we were still forced to work—look at all the nails in this one!—to build the land,” he says. “And in all the figures the hands are outstretched. My belief is that the worship of God is what got us through it.”

The stark figures, the chains—nothing is subtle here. Even the rafters are burned, a condition Freeman says he discovered after he took over the place. “Well,” he says resignedly, “I’m here now.”

Downstairs, at the back of the house, is the finale.

“When I have students come to the house”—kids who visit the house on field trips from a school for disadvantaged youth or from local Sunday schools—“I save this room for last, to leave an impression on them,” Freeman says.

He walks through a doorway into a room coated in rusty sheet metal. The pieces armor the walls; the ceiling is rusty tin. The countertops are rust, as are the cabinets. The metal is loose on the floor, crunching underfoot. The stove is rusty, and the refrigerator—although new—is plated with rusty sheet metal.

“I call this room ‘The Rusty Kitchen,’” Freeman says. “All of this was new when I moved in here. All of this old, rusty tin—it was originally made with a purpose, and over time it was neglected, and changed its shape, and changed its color. I bring them in here just to tell kids: Don’t let your own talents go to waste.”

That Van Freeman has been able to develop his own talent he credits to God. But certainly he received his share of earthly help, from friends, from strangers, and especially from his family. They seem to understand that in their midst is a chosen person—someone who has slipped the bonds of ordinary middle-class responsibility.

“That’s how artists are,” Nathaniel Freeman says.

Says brother Michael, of the home’s almost total lack of furniture: “Van’s house is like a museum. Van’s house is a place where you go and look at it in amazement. . . . You don’t keep it on a level of a mortal—this is art. You don’t eat dinner in a work
of art.”

One of the larger mosaics in Van Freeman’s house is called “Caught Up.” It’s a reference from the Bible—he says he isn’t sure of the chapter and verse. It reads, “One day in a moment in a wink of an eye we shall be caught up to meet Him in the air.”

“I’m not waiting to get ‘caught up,’” Freeman says. “I’m living a caught-up life now.”

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