Found Artist

Baltimore is helping Van Freeman pick up the pieces. His fanciful, faithful work will be the city's rich reward.

January 24, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

A river winds through Van Freeman's North Parkwood Avenue home - a river made of flashing shards of mirrors and glass.

Each piece, salvaged from bottles and other found material, has been painstakingly embedded in the floor by the home's owner, Van Freeman, a self-taught artist.

The river courses along walls painted apple-tree green. The walls, the furniture, even the ceiling, are crammed with mosaics of glass, stone and tile. Everywhere, there are words: "Any way you look at it. Christ reigns. Any way at all."

It is reminiscent of The Garden of Eden, without the snake.

The analogy fits. Freeman's home is a shrine of sorts, his version of paradise, converted from a standard Baltimore rowhouse in a six-month burst of frenetic activity. "Ninety-nine percent of what I need for my art, I find," Freeman says on a blustery winter day. "I didn't think Baltimore would have a lot of finds, but it does. I drive up and down alleys, looking for stuff."

Of course, Freeman uses materials other than glass. He has an entire series of artworks made from painted and shellacked venetian blinds. One impressive piece is constructed from 1,201 AIDS ribbons.

Occasionally, neighbors drop off materials they think Freeman can use, such as a box of broken dishes. Often while he is scavenging, Freeman reflects upon his favorite proverb: "Your gifts will make room for you."

So far, it's worked out that way, although his gifts haven't necessarily made room for him easily.

Freeman was born and raised in Baltimore, attending numerous local high schools, including Polytechnic and Frederick Douglass high schools and left after the 11th grade. "Poly wasn't fun, and then Douglass was too much fun," he says. Over the years, he worked in a grocery store and in a men's clothing store to support himself. He also took classes at a variety of colleges, including Morgan State University and Washington's American University. "I always wanted to go to Washington so I figured `why not?' Why not try these colleges?" he says. "Whatever year Purple Rain [the 1984 movie and album by Prince] came out, that was the year that I moved to DC and went to all those colleges and had a lot of fun."

Eventually, he returned to Baltimore to attend what's today called Baltimore City Community College, from which he earned an associate's degree. About this time, his father, a baker, gave him a building on Reisterstown Road in which he could live while studying.

"I decided I wanted to make it into a loft, which was very fashionable at the time, so I began knocking down walls," Freeman says. "My dad never said anything about it. He would come in one day, and the kitchen would be gone, but he never said a word."

For some reason, tearing out walls, altering spaces, whacking hammer against nail and plaster triggered something deep inside Freeman that would emerge much later as art. "What happened when I was exposing brick and building things? I don't know. Why walls and not painting? I don't know," Freeman says. "Something happened."

After graduating, Van left Baltimore, intending to move to Hawaii. On the way, he stopped in Los Angeles and stayed. In 1997, he rented a place to live - and decided to transform it. In turn, it transformed his life - and made him a cause celebre.

Trouble was, he didn't actually own the apartment. Where he saw art, his landlord saw criminal damage to property. Even worse, Freeman fell several months behind on his rent.

"Every cent he earned went into his art," says Gidion Phillips, an award-winning Los Angeles filmmaker who is shooting a documentary of Freeman's life. (That "every cent" may literally be true. Freeman estimates that more than 10,000 pennies, or $100, went into decorating one wall of the apartment.)

Nor were his neighbors supportive - at least, not at first.

Freeman would create his art at all hours of the day and night, whenever inspiration struck, singing in his back yard at the top of his lungs. Granted, his songs were gospel tunes, but those residents living within earshot preferred not to worship at 3 a.m.

They complained. The unpaid rent accumulated. In September 2001, Freeman was evicted.

He became so discouraged, so depressed, that he didn't want to make art any more. He simply got in his car and drove away, leaving behind his "gallery" and the works it contained.

And that, according to Freeman, Phillips and news accounts, is when the transformation took place.

After Freeman vanished, the neighbors began to worry about him. They knocked on his door. They peeked inside. And they became transfixed with what they saw, the elaborately worked crosses, the tiled window-frames and doors.

One woman cleaned the place up, checked on it daily, and paid a chunk of the overdue rent. Other neighbors contacted the media, brought in bus-loads of schoolchildren to tour the gallery, and launched a determined effort to locate the missing artist.

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