Louise Freshman Brown: An Artist’s Story Through a Studio

Words by Su Ertekin-Taner

 

Multimedia artist Louise Freshman Brown makes her art in the studio tacked onto her garage. She describes the studio’s location as a choice of convenience, an architectural choice also that would be brought to fruition by her architect sister: “My sister designed my house. She was the architect. I wanted to be able to get from my car to my studio easily,” Freshman Brown says. 

 

Unlike the rest of her home, though, the studio isn’t meant to be a cuddly, comfortable space. Rather, Freshman Brown tells me “it’s like a kitchen.” By this she means it’s a space where work, not relaxation happens. 

 

When she sends me the studio pictures I’ve requested, I see what she means. In the pictures, I first see utensils — magazines, glue, tape, paint brushes, utility clips, mattifier, lined paper — splayed out on tables and cabinets. The cabinets hold whatever is not currently in use for a project. A utility sink sits on the right side of the room for post-project rinsing. Toward the back of the room are two easels which, like plates, display a day’s or more worth of measuring, combining and creating. A large table is the centerpiece of the room and where Freshman Brown has placed most of her project-ready utensils. This is a space where work is waiting to happen or, perhaps, has happened. 

 

Perhaps most important to Freshman Brown in this kitchen-studio — most important in that she mentions this detail a couple of times during the interview — is the array of photographs and images that are haphazardly secured onto walls; they are like pictures that might line the walls of a lived-in kitchen. In some areas the pictures stretch from floor to ceiling, in others they’re folded into spaces that the cabinets will allow for. They’re Polaroids of her, pictures of her family (like her daughter and son) and reference images snipped from magazines. Some, she tells me, are her mother’s paintings. 

 

***

Freshman Brown’s childhood Oneida, New York home was full of the artistically inclined. Her mother, who graduated from Carnegie Tech, was an artist, primarily a portrait painter. Her middle sister would become a painter and ceramist, and her older sister would become an architect. Her father, a pediatrician, was the odd one out in the household and doubly supportive because of it: “I was very lucky. I had wonderful parents,” she said, later elaborating, “It was a very easy childhood.”

 

With all this familial support (and Freshman Brown’s indifference to the academic world because “I really didn’t love that much about school”), the aspiring artist had the freedom to think, dream and play art. In her early childhood, she frequently indulged in fantasies about art with her best friend and music-loving counterpart Alice Lee: “We’d go to the library, and she’d get books to read and I’d get the books with the pictures in them. We had school in my attic. We had the first school of the arts, and I taught art. She taught music and then we’d switch rooms. This was in my attic, and we had stuffed animals as our students. We did this for years.” 

 

It was during these attic lessons that Freshman Brown became familiar with her innate ability to draw: “I didn’t know how I knew how to draw, but I did.” During conversations with the adult Lee, she discovered that Lee taught her own children to draw in the instinctive way that her attic companion drew, a fact which Freshman Brown remarks is “very funny” to her. Very funny, she says, because she is now a distinguished Professor of Art at the University of North Florida and teaches many students to draw and create art as a whole with that same artistic instinctiveness. 

 

***

I ask about the photographs on her studio’s wall a couple of times because they’re an unintentional collage in a multimedia artist’s already artistic space. There are the more saturated recent pictures of Freshman Brown’s family and some of her standing next to her pieces. Though there are also some older photographs and Polaroids from her childhood and college life that have transient, muddy hues and a graininess characteristic of their age. 

 

There’s one image she finds and shows me of her at Syracuse University, her alma mater. In the black and white photo, she is wearing a one piece artist’s smock over a black turtleneck. Freshman Brown’s body is angled away from the image, so only her side profile is visible. She’s in thought, swept up in studio life, or posing or both. A canvas atop an easel sits in the foreground of the image. 

 

***

Freshman Brown remembers her undergraduate years and graduate years pursuing painting and printmaking at Syracuse fondly. The university was just an hour away from her Oneida home, and her artistry was unlimited by the school’s programs and faculty: “It was a great experience. I could just paint all day and draw all night, and it was a great program.”

 

In her time there, the artist tailored her campus experience to revolve around art. Naturally, she holed herself up in studio spaces creating. A young Freshman Brown also used all the university’s institutions to draw her closer to art, even if it meant thwarting the purpose of said institutions: “I actually joined a sorority not to be in the sorority but because it was closer on campus to all the art facilities which sounds crazy. Actually, it’s practical.”

 

Though unhindered in her artistic pursuits, painting as a woman came with some limitations, namely lack of recognition: a senior at Syracuse, Freshman Brown geared up to win the school’s painting award, only to discover one of her male classmates would be receiving the accolade instead: “The dean of the college, of the art program, told me that a guy was getting the award because I would get married and taken care of, but he had to support a family. And this was classic.”

 

Despite being written off as a homemaker, not an artist and her painting professor’s protests to the dean’s decision, Freshman Brown accepted the defeat: “I wasn’t going to fight it, that someone said that to me. I guess I wouldn’t fight it today because idiots are idiots. What are you gonna do?” 

 

This Syracuse snub would be the first of many comments invalidating her career as a woman artist. She tells me, most recently a man commented on one of her MOCA-displayed art pieces, claiming that a man could have done it, that is created art, better than any woman. But for the artist whose works have been featured in galleries internationally, she said, “Those things roll off because I know who I am. But I’ve had a lot of comments like that, yes.” 

 

***

Finally, my eyes settle on the paint covered easels lined up next to windows at the back of the studio. It is on these easels, in addition to some of her more bare counters, that Freshman Brown completes most of her artistic process. In fact, the artist builds much of her artistic process around the condition of the easels. 

 

There is a pre-easel thinking and imagery storing process, for example. During this stage which she amicably calls the “heavy mind stuff” stage, Freshman Brown reads and researches for upcoming pieces. She also might collect reference images, prints, and photographs — called “grounds.”

 

There is an intra-easel creation process — usually from Friday to Monday, afternoon to early evening — during which she begins a piece using all collected “grounds.” By this point, she’s set in her artistic ritual, wearing her timeless working outfit — jeans and a black shirt — and far from distractors like social events and other art. She’s only focused on the composition of the present piece. “I submerge myself in whatever I’m doing … I’m out of my daily self but I’m into my inner self,” she said. 

 

During this creating stage, Freshman Brown also practices leaving the studio and coming back to regard her pieces again: this time as separate from the artistic process that precipitated them. 

“If I walk out and walk back in and they’re holding up, they’re done,” she said. 

 

Of course, the two stages are not sequential and often, meld into one. For example, she might scrap a piece mid-creation process and reassemble it into a reference image for another project. She also admits to accidentally falling into the art-creating process on a whim though she shouldn’t. “Sometimes, I go in there [studio] to just do some sorting and then I’ll start making art. I’m not trying to make art because I have other things to do, but I can’t control myself,” she explained.

 

Today, she has displayed her most recent collection, “ARMOR,” on these easels. The primarily collage-based collection was influenced by the history and artistic composition of the Middle Ages and the 20th century Dada movement. Freshman Brown overlays moments of history atop one another, intensely interested in showcasing this “armor,” or uniform, that identifies and protects both historical figures and us.

 

***

Freshman Brown’s studio is certainly like a kitchen, a messy kitchen at that, and she’s glad about it. “Some people’s studios are so tidy it scares me. It’s like who would want to work in there?” she commented. “When I’m actually working, my studio is like a disaster, like a bomb hit it.”

 

Like a messy kitchen — its disorder the only reminder of an already eaten cuisine — Freshman Brown’s studio, in all its untidiness, is a reminder of the elapsed (and maybe still-to-elapse) landmarks of her artistic career. Paintings, pictures, easels, drawers, cabinets all silently perform as tokens of childhood, college and adult memory. 

 

Also like a messy kitchen, Freshman Brown’s studio is a space in which she will keep creating — at least until 7 p.m. on most days, when she’ll turn off the lights of the studio and decide to re-regard the space and the art housed in it again the next day.

About Su Ertekin-Taner

Jacksonville native Su Ertekin-Taner is a student at Columbia University with a passion for everything arts. While she writes creatively, satirically, journalistically, and enthusiastically (of course), she also loves to sing, dance, and do impressions; her favorites are Toddlers and Tiaras Mom and Shakira. Find Su critiquing the quality of reality TV that she willingly spends several hours a day watching, petting her cat even though she recently discovered her cat allergy, and probably watching paint dry because it's fun.