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Jack Freeman

JACK FREEMAN

 Down in the Valley with Easel and Oils

 By Betsy Bannerman

Noe Valley painter Jack Freeman says he's a simple man. When he met famous sculptor Henry Moore in London and showed him his own sculptures, Moore told him, "You better stick to painting, because this isn't the Renaissance anymore. You're lucky if you can do one thing well."

So Freeman paints. But he also has taken French and Italian lessons, is interested in medieval history, loves to cook, plays in a local jug band, travels with his wife to Europe, and walks his dog, Haley, around his Alvarado Street home. "Unless one makes a deliberate attempt to broaden horizons," he says, "I think routines tend to narrow a person."

Jack Freeman was born 62 years ago in Richmond, Va. His mother had been a painter, but stopped to raise a family. His insurance investigator father moved the family all over -- New York, Detroit, Kansas City -- but Jack mostly grew up in Atlanta, where he first studied art and also took anatomy classes at a medical school.

He enrolled in art school at the College of William and Mary in Richmond, and then traveled to Europe to apprentice under expressionist Oskar Kokoschka in Salzburg, Austria. Freeman won third prize in a student competition there ("a big morale booster"), and moved to London. But he eventually found his way back to America. "I decided I wasn't going to be an expatriate."

He arrived in San Francisco in the '60s and hung out at the San Francisco Art Institute for six years, "going to jazz clubs and bars all night, and sleeping and making abstract paintings all day." Somewhere in his 30s, "I overhauled all that and began to find myself and my work," which didn't have much to do with the contemporary art scene.

"I never got on the modern bandwagon. For me to do contemporary art might be a sort of cerebral exercise, but it's not what I'm about."

Freeman is more of a traditional painter who describes his style as a combination of impressionism and expressionism, with some English realism thrown in. As for his philosophy of art, he says, "I try to resolve volume and space, color combinations and transitions, light and movement--things that depict life. You have to be alive. You have to be able to see something as if for the first time and paint that."

Freeman has lived in Noe Valley since the '70s--"back when you could afford a house"--and has seen many changes. "There are no more beat-up VWs running around, that's for sure!" he laughs. "I even remember when there were horses and pastures up on Grand View. You could drive up Clipper and see the whole city. Now it's just a wall of houses."

Still, he loves scouting the neighborhood for picturesque locations to paint. "Noe Valley is like a little mountain town, a city within a city, one of the most beautiful places around."

Although he spent many years in his studio painting portraits, still lifes, and what he calls "theme paintings" (mostly political or mythic in nature), he is now focused on landscapes. "There's just something about being outside that I like. I want to paint something sweeping and beautiful and that has a mood and a feeling."

Among his many dramatic outdoor scenes is a Sicilian landscape with a smoky Vesuvius in the background. Another shows a storm coming in over the Loire Valley in France.

His favorite local spots include the bluffs of Diamond Heights, where he painted a long view of Candlestick Park, and Twin Peaks, from which he captured the landscape he calls "8:30 p.m., Dog Park" (alluding to Noe Courts).

He also has done two versions of 24th Street. For one, he squeezed his easel into the parking lot near Radio Shack while it was shut down for repaving. For the second, he set up in the now-vacant lot at Dan's Service Station. In 1998, he painted St. Paul's near 29th Street, calling the work "Church on Church Street."

In general, Freeman likes painting bright, light-filled scenes--"somewhat brilliant is what I look for." Many of his green/yellow/blue landscapes have a single touch of orange, red, or lavender off to the side, to make you sit up and smile.

The paintings are usually small in size, say 18 by 24 inches, and often seem to be bursting their boundaries. The roads, rivers, and mountain ranges steer your eye beyond the edge of the frame.

Freeman doesn't carry much when he's out reconnoitering for artistic subject matter. First, there is his lightweight, folding, three-legged easel. "Only the wind is your enemy," he says. Resting on the easel will be his already primed, stretched, and framed canvas. And then there are his palettes and tubes of paint -- "I use a pretty full range of colors, 10 or 12 probably."

He prefers oils to acrylics, because acrylics tend to harden too quickly, especially if it's hot outside. With oils he can do an outdoor scene, usually in a couple of hours, and then execute some touchups in his studio the next day, "while the paint is still wet and the idea is still fresh." He applies the oil paint thickly, three-dimensionally, and has become an expert at packing up unfinished, wet paintings. "I like to bring them back alive!"

Freeman has won many awards for his art over the years. He has taught at the Palo Alto Art Club, and has also conducted painting classes in his large, airy studio south of Market.

He says he is not a big spender or consumer, and he and his wife manage to live off some investments they made a while ago, plus selling his paintings. "I've been worried about our studio rent going up. But the owner of the building apparently isn't going to fall for that panic. [Studios] are a boon to painters, because you need a place where you can just leave stuff on the table and walk away."

Freeman has had a number of one-man and group shows over the years. His works can currently be seen at Annex Digital on Green Street and in a solo show called "Abstractions with Attitude" at the Crepe Vine II at 216 Church St.

Many friends, neighbors, and collectors worldwide own his art. Freeman says the greatest compliment he's ever received was when he had to borrow back a painting in order to put it in a show and the owner said he "missed" the piece, as though it were a person.

Asked if he missed the paintings he's sold or given away, Freeman said, "Probably. I mean, I try to put something in there that's part of me. And sometimes you see something you did before and you think, Wow, did I do that? Why can't I do that every day?"

Sometimes people commission a particular subject, and Freeman will do several versions. He does not accept a deposit, however, and doesn't promise a certain interpretation. "I don't want to get locked into doing something commercial. If the painting goes in another direction, I don't want to put a porch or something in there that's out of kilter with what I see. You have a certain feeling when you get up in the morning, and that's you. That's what you have to be true to."

A while back, Freeman saw some ancient cave paintings in Spain that were executed before written, perhaps even before spoken, language. He said, as a painter, this made him feel like "part of a bigger picture, bigger puzzle, a greater plan." And when he heard an expert on TV explain how the paintings had been made with charcoal, spit, and a little ochre, he was struck by how something so simple could be so powerful and so durable. "You can get bogged down with technology and still not 'see' more."

What does the future hold?

Freeman, who had a bout with cancer a few years ago, would like to get all his works onto CD, so there is a record. He's also planning a trip to France, to study art history, paint, and practice his verbs. "I've always had the travel bug. Things get so familiar here. I like to go places, see how things have changed, the food, the people."

He continues to play bones, spoons, and drums with the Babar Jug Band (which began 20 years ago at Cafe Babar at 22nd and Guerrero). "We hand out percussion instruments to people in the audience. It's like you're in Appalachia playing on the front porch."

He may not be a complete Renaissance man, but artist Jack Freeman has been around the block.


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