collage artist

december 11, 2019

My first question, as always: can you introduce yourself a little? Where did you grow up, and what were some of your important art experiences?

My name is fred free (since 1997) and I live and work on the edge of Boston in the US. I grew up in two suburban developments in southern New Jersey in the 60s and 70s (in a 3 BR Rancher and a 4 BR Split Level). My art experiences back then were next to zero, but my parents always encouraged me to be creative and expressive. I had drumming concerts in the living room, put on an art exhibit in the hallway, made books and designed buildings and landscapes. Their support was really the important experience, as it helped me on a personal level imagine my way out of the banality and monotony of my surroundings.

Since 1997? So fred free is an alias or pseudonym? Without asking for your real or other names, may I ask what made you change names, for lack of a better way to put it?

Sure thing - back in 1997 I was doing freelance illustration work and it was more for money than artistic satisfaction. And some of the work was so lame that I realized I didn't want my actual name attached to it. I looked for a new name by opening up a dictionary and at the top of the first page I landed on were the words "frederica freelance" (as in, the first and last words on that page). I kind of envisioned the shortened version right away and went with it. The irony is that I used it for exactly one boring freelance piece before I realized that I'd rather go by FF for my personal art and stick with my given name for the boring work-for-money stuff. So i've been fred ever since. 

Do you have any formal art education or training?

I was so much into designing buildings by the time I was in high school, that I went to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to study architecture. But I chose RISD because it was also an art school which required me to have a foundation year of art and also gave me the gift of being around artists and designers of all stripes for five wonderful years. It was truly a rewarding experience as it was happening and set me up in many ways for a future in design and art.

How long have you been doing collage? Do you work in any other media or style?

That’s a tough question to answer. I took two collage courses at RISD, but stayed focused on architecture and did that for about 10 years after graduating. Part of that time though was spent doing freelance drawing and other projects for myself and with friends – video and audio explorations, photography, guerrilla art, a return to book making and of course, collage. At the end of that decade the architecture stopped and the other things took over.

What about collage as a medium speaks to you?

It is immediate, accessible, economical, and universal and allows me to express myself in a variety of ways from impenetrable poetic madness to fairly direct ideas. And it is the opposite of what I used to do as an architectural designer – plan, plan, plan and plan some more. I glue as I go and see where I wind up. It’s intuitive, improvisational and it's a rush.

You often incorporate text and typography into your pieces. Where does your love of words come from? And what, if anything, are you trying to communicate? Are there any particular themes that you come back to over and over again?

My love of words comes from my parents. He wrote poems and songs and short stories and she did crossword puzzles every single day and together we played lots of word games and tried to out-pun each other on a regular basis. For the most part, the words in my pieces are like all the other found bits, which means that they are sometimes very random and sometimes not so much. Just depends on the piece. Since I usually just start right in and let the bits take me places, themes don’t exist at all before I start (for the most part). The bits I find and cut out are inspired by all kinds of things – my childhood, my adulthood, the weather, politics, religion, relationships, the time of day, music, certain colors and shapes and lines and absolutely nothing at all – so when they come together they are often a bit of a mixed-up salad of what’s in my head at the moment.

I love the titles of a lot of your collages, like flag hugging, space forcing, money packing, child caging, never winning or and heaven and nature sting. Do they come naturally to you, or do you spend a lot of time on them?

Thank you very much. Some come easier than others and they come in different ways. Those two were a result of me summing up the pieces, but I treat most titles like they are just another cut and paste part of the collage and find them in a song I’m listening to at the time or from some words on the back of the piece or from opening a book (usually Fahrenheit 451 these days) and looking for a sentence fragment that jumps out at me.

Your titles give a whole extra layer of meaning to your work. Do you worry that this get lost when sharing your work on Instagram or elsewhere online, where a lot of people don’t take the time to stop for more than a cursory look?

That’s definitely a problem with social media, but I've been showing my work online since 2000 so I don’t get too worried about it at this point. I figure people who really want to look closer will do just that. And there's nothing I can do about it anyway.

Your work strikes me as nostalgic in a way that goes beyond the use of vintage imagery and paper. Is that just my perception? Or something you do on purpose? A theme?

That’s a reasonable perception, but I’m not trying to be nostalgic on purpose. I love the patina of older materials and the detail in the images and graphics, but mostly I’m interested in the potential of making something new from something old. That was big for me when I did architecture as well.

Your work also strikes me as somewhat critical, in a very subtle way. A lot of quiet, little comments on current affairs and the state of things. Would you describe yourself and maybe your work as a little sarcastic?

Actually I am very critical of the current occupant of the white house and his actions and have made almost 500 pieces and a book in the last three years expressing those criticisms - sometimes subtly and sometimes less so. But that's basically where that kind of work starts and ends. And hopefully ends soon.

What are your influences? Are they intellectual? Personal?

I think I pretty much covered this in a couple of the questions above, but I’ll just add that it is both and more. Every day and every year brings new inspirations and challenges because the context in which I make the art always evolves and that affects what influences me.

How do you think your work has changed over the years?

I believe my collage work is more focused, but at the same time I'm always looking for ways to get less focused so that I don't fall into a creative rut. It's a seemingly never-ending struggle between getting “better” and not getting lazy. It's actually one of the things that keeps me going.

Who are some of your favourite collage artists/ illustrators/photographers/etc.?

There are so many talented artists I've collaborated with and got inspiration from over the last almost twenty years of online-connectedness that I don't want to single out any here because I don't want to leave anyone out. But I have an old tumblr called Variety Showcase where I highlighted their work. I haven't updated it in a few years, but you can find most of my favorites there.

What would you tell a young person starting out in the art world, be it with professional ambitions or not? What advice would you give?

I'm not big on giving out advice because everybody's situation is different, but I’ll say what has worked for me - be true to who you are and if you don't know who that is, keep looking. And keep working and exploring and listening to people you respect and repeat that over and over again even or especially when you're discouraged and want to quit. Do all of that and you just might make art happily ever after.

fred free website
fred free on Instagram
fred free Variety Showcase
interview: Petra Zehner