J. Matthew Freeman's work is captivating in it's perfectly placed usage of symbology and beauty. He simplifies his work by saying that his main focus is using historical art symbolism and language with contemporary subjects and figures to present paintings that are personal yet viewer inclusive.
Freeman is currently featured at MK Gallery in Denison.
“It started with my decision to paint women a certain way, by avoiding using them as props or just another 'pretty' thing that exists only to be looked at,” he described his art. “It was very important to me that female representation in my work would be approached thoughtfully and respectfully. I would consider myself a feminist advocate, and oddly enough that's why I moved on from those paintings like 'Manipura' and 'Contemporary Mary.' I realized that with those particular works I had reached the end of my role, and as I am a male artist, it could only be to advocate and support, not take over the narrative. I felt I was on the verge of 'he-peating' and 'man-splaining' the voices of those that are more qualified to speak on that experience. My place was to say 'I hear you, and I support you.'”
Freeman's next project was one he felt confident in speaking on with absolute authority. He took a deep dive into his own experiences and began the core work of “Unofficial Canonization.” He painted the people who impacted him in such a way that they are fundamental in shaping him into who he is today.
Freeman did find it a challenge riding the line between the ultra-personal nature of painting his family and giving something familiar to a wider audience that may or may not relate to the same experiences he had. He hopes he managed that as it was always his intention that yes these are his family, but a viewer could find something familiar in the paintings as well.
Freeman grew up in Denison and graduated from Denison high school. He worked in the golf course industry for 10 years with a turf science degree before going back to school for art.
“Yep, I was a superintendent,” he said. “I drove tractors, did fertilizer calculations, managed crews and whatnot. I liked the work, and it had a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. It was 'honest work' as my grandparents might've said. Get your hands dirty in the earth kind of work.”
As gratifying as it was, he is sometimes glad that the economic collapse in 2008 pushed his hands toward something else. At the time he wasn't able to pack up his family and move around while trying to compete against people with twice the experience for jobs they were taking pay cuts for. It made sense for him to shift gears, and try a new career.
“I initially thought I'd be an art historian and teach or work in galleries,” he said. “It wasn't until I experienced a studio class, or art-making that I realized I wanted to be a part of that aspect. Teaching is still important to me and that's why I'm at Southeastern right now.”
In 2012, Freeman graduated from Southeastern Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's debree in studio art and is now working on graduating from Savannah College of art and design with an master's degree in painting this fall.
Although confident in his path, it has not always been easy. He feels he's hit enough obstacles along the way that he could write a book that would be a dramedy cautionary tale. There is a somber amusement that is not lost on him.
“Anyway, I realized along this journey that no matter what has happened, I am responsible for how I deal with it,” he said. “I am committed to this, and I have to see it through. If I don't, then any suffering that has happened along the way will be for nothing. If I don't, then I will never have given myself a chance to truly succeed. If I don't, then it'll just be a story of how I almost did something, but didn't. I hate that loss, self-doubt, and failure are a part of my story, but they are. I just try to handle it with enough wisdom to know all things must pass, and enough grace to not act like an a-hole.”
For the time being Freeman his taking great pride in two of his accomplishments. His “St. Pops” painting made it into the 25th annual New Texas Talent Juried Exhibition last year. This was a major personal and professional win for him.
“I had been through so much, and finally I had cracked into the larger art scene,” he said. “I felt legitimized. Finally some fruit on the vine! Ya'know?!”
“St. Son” is his favorite painting.
“That's my little dude and I love him more than anything or anyone,” he said. “So, obviously I'm partial to the subject matter of that particular painting, however I think it's also the best painting I've ever done in terms of craft and technical skills. He's in this warrior/hero pose that is equal parts make-believe play we associate with kids, and the potentiality of what he can grow up to be. It was a moment of me thinking, 'what is he learning from me? How much of him is me in there?' In all actuality, and what he doesn't know, is that he protects and influences me as much as I protect and influence him. Since the day he was born he gave me something more than myself to live for. He's the greater purpose that saved me from whatever pale version of myself that I would've been without him. Painting with awareness of that sublime weight, I think, was a big factor in portraying such a dichotomy in the work successfully.”
Freeman is focused on continuing to push himself technically and philosophically; to allow his work to evolve and refine. He hopes to start putting in for shows on a national level at some point. He will also continue to teach, he believes art, music and theater are more than hobbies and things to be consumed for entertainment; they are the foundations of critical thinking and ingenuity.
“They are joy, and a way to touch passion,” he said. “They're the cultural and personal investments that we cash in on when we need it most. I want to be a part of seeing that thrive.”
J. Matthew Freeman's “Thesis Exhibition: Unofficial Canonization” is currently being held at the MK Gallery located at 404 West Main St., Denison from until Oct. 19. The reception will be held Saturday from 5-7 p.m.
He also sells his work outside of galleries in the form of commissions. You may find his work online at https://artofjamesmatthewfreeman.weebly.com/