Sacred and profane 

Collage artist Henry Freedman assembles the pieces of life's great mysteries

Henry Freedman's Missoula home is nestled in a suburban neighborhood where everything seems like a variation on beige, contrasted only by the neatly cut green lawns. Inside the house Freedman shares with his wife, the scene appears much more radical. Like a cross between a museum and a curiosity shop, there is a carefully curated collection of things—hand-carved walking sticks, for instance—plus antique furniture adorned with engravings and tiny drawers, and tables of brightly painted folk art. In Freedman's art studio, the walls burst with his 3D artworks—collages encased in glass, built with layers of found photographs, embossed paper and rusted knickknacks.

"I love old things," Freedman says. "And it's a great joy looking for material. We've never bought anything that doesn't have a history. We always either get something from family or from a flea market. I think that a kid who touches an object with his greasy hands 40 years ago or someone who sits there [at a desk] and cries because they got a sad letter, it makes the thing go beyond its material value. It has a story. I think that's one of the reasons I'm attracted to picking up bits and pieces and putting them together."

click to enlarge “Drummer in Eden.” 2012, mixed media, courtesy of Henry Freedman.
  • “Drummer in Eden.” 2012, mixed media, courtesy of Henry Freedman.

Freedman's works are surreal and often eerie. In one, a photograph of a beautiful woman gazes at the viewer, but Freedman has pasted arms on her that are straight from an anatomy book, with the muscle and bone exposed to show the inevitability of death. It's like something out of a horror movie, though the image is as angelic as it is gruesome. Other pieces have a circus-like feel: A nude woman wearing pearls lounges against a lion. A music conductor gestures to an indifferent cow. Freedman seems to be getting at a dreamlike quality where the lines between opposites are blurred.

Like his house, Freedman is a bit surprising, too. He's a kindly, well-dressed spectacled art professor with an even-keel disposition. But get him talking about the mystery behind good art and his Boston accent grows stronger and more excited.

"In the subconscious opposites are often found side by side," he says. "But in the conscious reality we separate them. For example, we don't normally have sex in the kitchen. But in the subconscious there's no separation between kitchen and bedroom, between love and hate, between yesterday and today."

Freedman retired five years ago and moved to Missoula to be with his daughter and her family. Before that, he was an art history professor at Keene State University in New Hampshire for 38 years. Articles about him in Keene's brochures say that the classes grew in popularity as he taught, and no wonder, as he's an engaging storyteller. Not only that, but every other year he has led classes of students to Italy where they learned about the great masters. For Freedman, it was also a chance to peruse the streets and flea markets for weathered objects he could turn into collage.

“Italian Souvenir XV.” 2012, mixed media, courtesy of Henry Freedman.
  • “Italian Souvenir XV.” 2012, mixed media, courtesy of Henry Freedman.

Freedman's current exhibit at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, Imagining New Worlds, showcases 104 collages, some of which are inspired by those trips. The "Italian Souvenirs" series plays with iconic images like Roman numerals and also objects that evoke personal memories for Freedman. He pulls out several books of his collages—the flat, non-3D ones—and points out a plane ticket embedded in the piece, offset by a sun-like circle peeking from behind a Roman numeral III. The ticket is from a couple decades ago, from one of his first school trips to Italy. He recalls that he arrived in the early morning with his young daughter and 20 students to find that there had been a terrorist shooting. The airport was in disarray and no shuttle bus was to be found, so he tried to get the students into separate cabs to the hotel. It was a nightmare.

"I thought to myself, 'What the hell am I doing here?' I was holding my daughter, and thinking, 'Why am I doing this? I don't need this.' And then, as we were approaching the city, the sun was rising over the Colosseum. And I said, 'That's what I'm doing here.'"

Freedman plays with the ideas and images of the sacred and profane. He was inspired by the penny arcade near his home in the Chelsea community of Boston. He loved the look of the fortune-telling coin-op with the half-naked psychic. He also enjoyed the reliquaries of cathedrals where you could find the tibia of a saint encased in glass. His hometown doctor was also an inspiration. Inside the doctor's office was a wall of jars full of embryos and diseased organs. All these strange images spoke to Freedman because they dealt with the mysteries of life that are at the core of all things religious, scientific and artistic—even in their most horrifying forms.

click to enlarge “Post Card From Berlin—1928.” 2012, mixed media, courtesy of Henry Freedman.
  • “Post Card From Berlin—1928.” 2012, mixed media, courtesy of Henry Freedman.

Looking at his collection, you can see how certain symbols appear again and again in his work. Faces of clocks to denote time. Lollipops and balloons might evoke a carefree, childlike mood, but turned upside down they become pendulums that hint at mortality. And pendulums show up often.

"No matter what we do, our life is ticking away," he says. "And that's all right." He laughs. "I don't mean to be [morbid]. The realization of that should make us celebrate each moment. The truth is, everything we see is impermanent. This house, you and me. But the mystery behind what we see is permanent. And it's that mystery I try to express."

Henry Freedman gives an artist's talk at the Masquer Theatre Tue., Sept. 10, at 7 PM. Free. Freedman's exhibit, Imagining New Worlds, continues at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture in UM's PARTV center through Sat., Sept. 21.

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