Two Part Interview with Todd Freeman (Part One)

8 mins read

Todd Freeman, ‘The Wood Maladies,’ Hand colored copper etching on paper, 2009

The Shope Papilloma virus afflicts rabbit populations worldwide, producing horn-like growths of keratin in infected individuals. Early reports of this disease are likely responsible for stories of the mythical ‘Jackalope’.

b. 1981, Paw Paw, MI, Todd Freeman is a printmaker who lives and works in Grand Rapids, MI. He is a fancier of, small press books, and dive bar karaoke.

“As it was before”, a group exhibition featuring works by Todd Freeman, Martin Machado and Aleksandra Zee opened on January 8th, 2011 at Gallery Hijinks in San Francisco, CA.

Natasha Stagg: How long have you been illustrating?

Todd Freeman: I’ve drawn as long as I can remember, but I started to make copper etchings in 2001, when I took my first printmaking course at Grand Valley State. The possibilities, process and general character of intaglio printing all appealed to me in a pretty immediate way, and I later switched programs entirely, moving from illustration to finish with a BFA in printmaking. Having that initial training as an illustrator really informed the way I now approach making work, as it equipped me with a lot of good editing practices that I now do automatically. My work started to develop into its current track about five or six years ago, when I first developed a bit more understanding of the medium and more exposure to older print work. I quickly found I was much more excited by the work artists and draughtsmen were making two or three hundred years ago then a lot of what I’d seen through school. I started looking at lots of Flemish prints, Persian miniatures, and naturalists from many different eras, and started to meld my detail-ridden tendencies to those kinds of self-contained formats. Printmaking has such a direct, deep tradition with both documentative and narrative work, and it allowed me hone in on telling the kinds of stories I’ve always loved.

NS: What are your opinions on art, the future of it, in particular?

TF: I’m excited that accessibility and general awareness of art has in many senses become greater then ever- but still mostly for those who are looking in the first place. With many public schools forced to decimate their arts funding, its troubling to consider where that initial art exposure is going to come from, if not inside a school classroom. The resources and references available online today are obviously unmatched by any other point in time, and I think that visibility is going to play an even bigger role in the future. Although distinct from firsthand experiences and interaction, art & design blogs, gallery and artist sites can offer a pretty good sense of what people are working on in Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Brooklyn or wherever. While this transparent view of art & design circles can be blamed for a lot of recent lame trends and produce cloying, gimmicky art, I really am optimistic that it will also strengthen competition and encourage purposeful, well-conceived work.

NS: When I look at your art, I see a presence of research, but a sort of calming portrayal of what could be in fact overwhelming. I mean, I guess, that I’m inclined to think about books because of the illustrative quality, and because of the diagram-like detail, but I don’t think, immediately, of Edward Gorey or Audubon. I’m interested in the more ambiguous aspects of your work. Do you find that your work ends up asking more questions than it answers?

TF: A lot of my source material stems from subjects that I’ve always been kind of attuned to and influenced by; natural history, strange or unknown animals, and the paranormal in general. I’m constantly acquiring more and more animal books, and have found myself raiding my boyhood library. Borrowing the format of old taxonomy engravings and etchings allowed a way to portray these stories pretty directly while retaining a sense of legitimacy or authenticity that other mediums couldn’t really offer. Many subjects I want to use in my prints are undocumented or unproven, and arise from a childhood need to see things like the Mothman or Flatwoods Monster firsthand. I really try to make that initial wonderment or dread come across on paper, and go through a lot of measures to ensure all the elements feel right. I’m always really conscientious about how that kind of subject matter reads, as I never want mine to feel overly whimsical or pushed into a sci-fi or fantasy territory. I used to only make work about animals or events that were documented or at least allegedly real, but the ‘rules’ have shifted to start including some subjects from world folklore too. Sharing these back stories is important, but in terms of display I generally just name my work with direct, simple titles that provide some reference for the viewer to pick up on.

NS: What is your connection to literature?

TF: I’ve been reading mostly non-fiction for several years, especially work on natural history, exploration and speculative science. I’m also a sucker for anything dealing with traditional museum culture, artists like Mark Dion and books like Stephen Asma’s Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads and Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder really reinforced my obsession with those kinds of institutions. Recently I’ve started to try and familiarize myself with a lot of world folklore, as I wanted to move a bit away from cryptozoological or ‘modern folklore’ themes and expand my cast of characters a bit. It’s been a means to explore the use of allegory and symbolism in more familiar animals, as interpretations can vary widely across cultures. Beasts and beings from Japanese, Indian, Brazilian and Native American tales will start entering into my work soon. I also plan to make some works based off stories from Richard Dorsan’s Blood Stoppers and Bear Walkers, a collection of Native American and French fur trapper tales from Michigans’ Upper Peninsula.