The man who talks with materials — Dan Freeman, maker of objects

Posted in More Stories, Visual Art

Whidbey Life Magazine contributor
Jan. 13, 2014

A little kid was playing in a dusty lot in Southern California while his carpenter father framed a house. He wasn’t quite old enough to go to school but he knew every tool on the construction site, what it was and what it was used for. He was making little people and abstract objects from the scraps of wood and metal strewn about.

The possibilities the materials presented to him were endless and exciting. Dan Freeman knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist and soon was confronted, as every artist is, with limitations – his own, and those of the materials that fascinated him so much. For example, he needed to learn how to make different pieces of metal stick together. He could envision how he wanted them to stick together, but he didn’t know how to do it.

The first time Freeman walked into his high school shop class, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. There were welding torches, band saws, radial saws; exactly the kind of tools he needed to make the creations constantly forming in his mind and searching for a way to escape into the world. Soon, he could join metals together. Cut them. Cast them. Fasten them to other materials and create objects that invited contemplation and evoked emotion. Art.

Dan explains the finish on a sculpture in process during a visit to his studio.

Dan explains the finish on a sculpture in process during a visit to his studio. / Photo by David Welton for WLM

“I’ve always been curious about materials. I enjoy the juxtaposition of different textures. I use plants, any material: bushes, branches, cocobolo, madrone, rose bushes. I like how they interact with man-made material,” he said. “Sue Taves [also a Whidbey sculptor] calls me a ‘materials tramp.’”

His sculpture straddles the realm of impression and abstraction, with the abstract usually weighted more heavily in the balance. In many pieces, geometric shapes and irregular forms seem to exist for their own sake. Other work has a more realistic aspect to it, in that an observer may connect it with some familiar or previously known object or idea.

In one piece, a slender column of welded steel rises to support a small walnut branch that, in turn, supports a painted aluminum disk. A second walnut branch with a small bit of wiry bush affixed to its upper end also sits atop the column, in front of the disk. Upon viewing it, most people will think of a full moon viewed through tree branches. Freeman titled the work “Full.”

"Full," welded steel, corokia and cotoneaster wood.

“Full,” welded steel, corokia cotoneaster, painted aluminum. / Photo by Dan Freeman

The piece is highly finished, something that Freeman enjoys accomplishing in his work. He will occasionally leave a few fasteners, such as screws, exposed so people can better imagine the mechanics involved in the creation of the artifact. Even then, though, the effect is one of a highly skilled degree of workmanship.

“I like the well made and nicely done.” he said. “I’m very careful with the finish and fit.”

Another piece is called Chinese Junk. A thin slice of maple, like a shingle or sail, sits upright above a solidly smooth but irregular metal base. It’s held in place by a frame that cradles it on the bottom and along one side. The maple slice varies in thickness along that side and the artist has fashioned the frame to follow and fit every sinewy curve of fluctuation.

"Chinese Junk" welded steel and maple.

“Chinese Junk” welded steel and maple. / Photo by Dan Freeman.

Freeman and his wife Betty moved to Whidbey Island about eight years ago. The couple met in Auburn in 1970 at the Green River Community College where she was helping to organize a protest, putting up a photo of one of the four students killed at Kent State. They talked most of the rest of the day and he gave a speech at the rally.

“The next day,” she said, “Dan invited me back to the college and I watched him skillfully throw a beautiful pot in the pottery studio. As he came to the finish of the pot, he stuck his thumb into the rim, offending my sense of symmetry but satisfying him in some way. Then he fired it, with the flaw. I was intrigued.”

Married in 1971, the couple spent a few years on a commune with two other couples in the Willapa Hills, not far from the mouth of the Columbia River. While living there in a little cabin that Freeman built, their first child was born and he started exhibiting his work more at this time.

The need to provide for his growing family led them back to Seattle and carpentry work for Freeman, who became a construction superintendent. He continued creating sculpture, however, inviting his children into his shop and teaching them how to use all the tools and machines and do their own projects.

Dan and Betty Freeman in Dan's studio.

Dan and Betty Freeman in Dan’s studio. / Photo by David Welton for WLM

Since moving to Whidbey, Freeman has been creating his art full-time.

“The sculpture expresses who I am as a human being,” he said. “I have this conversation with the materials, learn their limitations, their ability to adapt at my will to make a story or make an expression. Sometimes they are related to who I am as a person, more than strictly a maker of objects.”

Betty Freeman, a writer and editor by profession, volunteers and works for Whidbey Island Nourishes, a local group that provides food for teenagers who sometimes lack enough to eat. She has enlisted her husband in those efforts. Seven days a week, early in the morning, they replenish the stock in a couple of vending machines that dispense free food for hungry youths. He does the heavy lifting and maneuvering of the machines and deals with the mechanical problems that occur.

“Dan continues to stand for peace every Saturday and to write anti-war letters to the editor, among other political topics,” she said. “He diligently does his homework, is very well-read, and is something of a watchdog of the military/industrial complex.”

But, soon enough, the maker of objects returns to his shop where, reminiscent of that little kid at the construction site, he finds himself surrounded by those objects. “Work begets work,” he said. “The more you work, the more it reveals. The excitement is in the adventure.”

Dan discusses art as Einstein looks on.

Dan discusses art as Einstein looks on. / Photo by David Welton for WLM

Dan Freeman is one of the artists currently featured in Whidbey Life’s Magazine’s Virtual Gallery.

To see more of Freeman’s artwork, please visit the following web sites or pages.

Photo at top: Dan with “My Third Eye.” Photo by David Welton for WLM

 Russell Clepper is a singer-songwriter who plies his trade locally and around the country. He is also a substitute teacher for the Oak Harbor School District.

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