Elle-jé Freeheart: Outsider Artist/Inside Job

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Elle-jé Freeheart is a self-made woman. She's developed multiple careers, as an aesthetician, inventor, business woman, massage therapist, book illustrator, sculptor, painter and poet, without formal training or, as she says, "letters after my name." More fundamentally, she is engaged in a life-long commitment to being a "deliberate creator" of her own reality. Through her art, she is investigating what it means and what it feels like to be making this journey specifically as a woman.

Freeheart's work shares an unintentional kinship with écriture féminine, or "writing the feminine" -- a literary movement initiated in the 70s by French feminist, Hélène Cixous that called to women to write from their experience: "woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies-for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal." Freeheart, the eldest child of a Lutheran preacher, can attest to this forced conformity, having had to deny pieces of herself to, as she says, "represent my dad and the church and Jesus and God and having all of these taboos and rules." But she heeded the pull to become her authentic self without the cheerleading of academia or the anonymity of a big city. Instead, she lived in "tiny little towns with no access to education or opinions about art," and she developed her voice, her vision, and her skills on her own.

Seeking the Magic Key'; ceramic and metal | Photo by Amy LeDoux.

Cixous hopes that women, as outsiders or "outlaws" to the patriarchal systems, could toss aside the rules of language, or "the laws of the father," to invent new expressions and new structures of thinking. This women-generated 'new imaginary" would inevitably cause the creation of alternatives to the existing corrupt systems. Freeheart's art, inseparable from her life, is the visual (and sensorial) equivalent to this. Her latest body of work is informed by the concept and title of her upcoming solo show, "Embracing My Shadow, Dancing My Light." The exhibition will take place in her hometown of Ventura and promises to "kick the gallery system in the ass" by fusing art, life and community with a month-long series of events. She is fiercely committed to using her status as an outsider artist to help others re-imagine how art is presented and to rebel against the deadening effects of the commodification of art.

'Easy Target'; ceramic and metal | Photo: Amy LeDoux.

In her essay, "The Laugh of the Medusa," Cixous writes, "Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard." Freeheart has instinctually carved the path that Cixous calls for. Her work comes from the body and writes its own logic. While her sculptures are figurative, they are not neutral observances of the figure. She uses plaster, clay, paper maché, concrete and found objects to create life-like or realistic parts of women's bodies in extreme or expressive situations, bringing the viewer into contact with the experience of a body charged with feelings or states of being. Freeheart treats the figure as a surrealistic site, a psycho-emotional landscape that she says expresses "the language of the soul." These are emotional, not symbolic worlds, more like the lush and tormented illogic of Frida Kahlo's work, who insisted, "I never paint my dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality." As Freeheart shares, "my work comes from stories about me or stories that have come to me from other women- its about womankind, but its about humankind because," she says, "we all suffer, we all are afraid, we all experience joy."

She sees herself as a medium through which her body can express itself and she says that she tries to work "as close to the nervous system as possible," to keep the channels open between herself, the piece, and the viewer. She reports that sometimes her clay or plaster will sit formless in mute rebellion to ideas that are simply not in alignment with what needs to be said. "Feelings are the only barometer we have for what is true in our lives," she shares, "we can tell ourselves anything in the head, we can make things up and try to believe them, but if you get anxious, or if you're angry, or if you're afraid, your body is telling you you are not where you need to be."

Living room gallery with 'Coffee Break Fantasies'; ceramic | Photo: Amy LeDoux.

Freeheart's sculptures beautifully mirror Cixous' assertion that a woman overflows with multiple selves rather than being one fixed identity and that her body is an inexhaustible source. "The way Embracing My Shadow, Dancing My Light started," she explains, "is I wanted to create from both sides and show that we are all more than one person." The diversity of the piece speak to this and some works purposefully represent conflicting selves, such as, "me my selves and i," which features a two-faced head; one face twisted in grimace, the other wild with appetite, or "Overestimated Innocence," which depicts a long, lithe girl with a beatific face holding a rusty machete behind her back.

'Fear of Flying'; mixed media | Photo: Amy LeDoux.

The visceral quality of Freeheart's work brings viewers into immediate connection with t experiences of their bodies. She creates additional points of entry for the viewer, especially for non-artists, by providing poignant and reflective titles. The uncomfortable features of her work; incomplete bodies or unconnected parts, disruption, wounds, sutures, expressive musculature, mouths and tongues, are often wrapped in a wink, a sweetness, a cuteness. Rather than being expressions of anguish, they are containers of these feelings, allowing the viewer to dip in as deep as they like. For some, the work serves as a release, a reckoning of unclaimed parts of the self. Freeheart recounts a woman who approached her at a show with tears in her eyes, repeating, "how do you know me?"

It is exactly that intimacy, that connection to the "the heart of the artist and the message of the piece" that Freeheart sees missing from the galleries, a system that must sustain itself through sales to people who "want the prestige of owning art and rely on the gallery owner tells them what good." She thinks galleries rely on resumes to understand the value of the work, rather than allowing it to stand on its own. It reminds her of her childhood, where "I could wear a necklace and bracelet, but I couldn't wear earrings, or I couldn't roller skate because it would lead to dancing." To this end, she refuses to submit a resume to galleries or grant makers, and will send in a mini manifesto instead, asking them to experiment with her and rely on their experience of the work as the ultimate standard of measure.

'The Art of Allowing'; ceramic | Photo: Elle-jé Freeheart.

While she focusses on completing the pieces for "Embracing My Shadow, Dancing My Light," she is envisioning how she wants to present her show. Displaying the work in a gallery space would cut the umbilical cord between her life and the pieces. Instead, she is searching for a big space to occupy for a month. Then she can lay out "a living room, kitchen, library, and studio" in the style of the film Dogville, "so that we can sit down on the bed or on the couch and be with these pieces." She plans to continue working in the space alongside the show, much like how her own living room is a gallery, her kitchen nook is the spot where she works on her book at night, and her roof patio is her studio. Freeheart also intends to collaborate with artists, writers, musicians and non-profit organizations whose work resonates with hers, inviting them to create their own events at the space in conjunction with the show. One idea is to put on a pot of coffee and open the doors for writers to come in to "sit in conversation and contemplation, and write." Freeheart is re-imagining an art exhibition as a community event, a sparking point for conversations, and a way to fulfill the need we have to be in contact with both each other and parts of ourselves that we don't hang out with in day to day life.

Looking out on Elle-jé's studio.

Freeheart is re-imagining an art exhibition as a community event, a sparking point for conversations, and a way to fulfill the need we have to be in deeper contact, both with each other and with the parts of ourselves that we don't spend time with in day to day life.

To visit her atelier, or for more information, please email info@ellejefreeheart, or give her a call at 805-746-9762.

Elle-jé Freeheart | Photo: Michelle Stevens.

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Top image: "Fear of Flying"; mixed media | Photo: Amy LeDoux.

About the Author

Tracy Hudak lives in Ventura with her husband John Lacques and their daughter, Ruby. Hudak initially studied Medical illustrator at Ohio State University, where she became a publicity writer for the arts as well. As a student p...
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