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Broken Mirrors: Robert Freeman's Jagged Interiors

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Robert Freeman rolled up to the studio in his trademark white Chevy pickup. The 73 year-old American Indian artist owned several over the decades, but this one is a 2000 Silverado long-bed with a V-6 for better gas mileage. "A while back, I called the dealership about buying a new one, but the guy said, 'Heck, that truck will go 300,000 miles." Freeman says. "Mine only has 240,000. I decided to keep it for awhile."

Freeman was born on north San Diego County's Rincon Reservation to a Luiseño father and Hunkpapa Sioux mother. For more than 50 years he's earned his beans and bacon as an artist. In his long career, he's won well over 200 art awards, exhibited internationally in Mexico, Canada, Japan, Senegal, West Africa and the Vatican in Rome, and in numerous U.S. museums and galleries. In the Indian art world, he's big time.

He clambers out of the truck and opens a studio gate that was once an iron bedstead. To his eye, the bedstead lacked something so he welded a bicycle sprocket to its center. Now the centerpiece resembles a rusty sunburst. He walks with a cane these days, a bad car wreck busted him up about a dozen years ago, but before that he was still playing full-court basketball. He's been a life-long athlete -- a hard-hitting linebacker, a hard-throwing pitcher, a hard-charging forward. Though he's a little banged up nowadays, his creative process still revs.

"I work most every day. Right now, I probably have a hundred unfinished paintings. I'm like one of those guys who spins plates on top of sticks. I keep them spinning, keep on working them," he says. "My paintings are like a garden that I need to water."

He self-built the Rincon studio that perches like a curiosity next to the highway, and he paints there on occasion; but mostly he works at his San Marcos home in a bedroom he's converted to a studio. "It's so full of books and paintings and sculptures I barely have a path to get to my workspace, a little rat hole with a small table where I do most of my drawing. I draw all the time," he says.

He and his wife of many years, Edwina, added an upstairs bedroom to the house. "I can see the ocean through the glass doors," he says. He likes to open them and smell the ocean breeze. He keeps unusual hours and heads to the bedroom early, often in bed by 7 or 8 at night only to get up super early, 2:30 or 3 a.m. It's a good time to work. "Sometimes I get an idea in the middle of the night and I'll get up and get right to it," he says.

Freeman has no idea how many pieces of art he's done over the years. Thousands of paintings and drawings, he guesses. He also sculpts in metal and wood and concrete, and creates public art. His murals are on the walls of the Los Angeles County Library at San Gabriel, and the Perris Indian Museum.

In 2008, he created a life-sized bronze cougar sculpture for Cal State San Marcos, and a 14-foot concrete abstract sculpture at the college's entrance. A couple of years before that he created "Coronne," the first historical life-sized bronze sculpture of an Indian woman for the city of San Juan Capistrano. In 2002, he was commissioned to design a commemorative seal for the state of California. The six-foot diameter seal is embedded on the steps of the capitol building in Sacramento. He has another life-sized bronze sculpture in Santa Fe Springs, CA.

In a way, Robert Freeman's art is a broken mirror reflecting both his idiosyncratic vision of the universe and his jagged interiors. He's propelled in life by the need to create, and self-taught, he appears to be an artist born, not made. He attributes many of his creative instincts to growing up poor.

When he was young, his mother moved from Rincon to Vallejo, a city in the Bay Area. "As kids, we didn't know we were poor, but we were poor," he says. "There were no store-bought toys; we had to improvise our guns, swords and knight's armor. I had a pocket knife when I was six or seven and I would carve out little people and other stuff. From a very young age, I was creating."

When he was young, his working mother would take him to spend summers with her parents on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota, just a half-mile from the Missouri River. "I went real quick from city kid, urban Indian, to living off the land," he says. His grandparents had a small house, and they would rent land to farmers who would pay by filling their basement with wheat. "We ate a lot of biscuits," he says.

They also ate a lot of deer meat, beaver, fish, and wild greens and berries. His grandmother knew all about edible roots so they would collect them as well. No electricity, no running water, they carried water by horse-drawn wagon from the river. "There was no Cheerios, no sugar, no milk, nothing that was refrigerated, but we ate pretty good," he says. Everybody rode horses, and people could understand English, but spoke Sioux. People lived in small houses, or log cabins, and some still lived in teepees.

He was born to the Big Moccasin and Hawk families, two big families on the reservation, and he was amazed at how good they all were on horseback. "They could all ride bareback, run up to a horse, flip up and grab the mane. But I was a city kid, so my uncle put me on a saddle horse," he says.

And as a California kid, he hadn't seen much lightning. But every afternoon it would cloud up and lightning would sear through the sky, booming big thunder. "I was afraid. Thunder and lightning still bothers me. A lot of people out there got killed by lightning."

During those summers on the rez, he saw Indians change from horses to cars. "My uncle got a car, and he would drive up, and everyone would look at his car and want to sit in it. It was really a neat thing. It was shiny. Heck, it was a car!" he said.

Eventually he moved back to California and went to Escondido High School where he played sports well enough to be offered scholarships that he didn't accept. Summers he would work for the forestry service clearing fire trails in Washington, and one summer when he was 17, he bought a big 1950 Harley Davidson motorcycle for $365. "I remember the amount because it's how many days there are in a year," he said.

He didn't know how to ride it, but he learned on the way from Washington to Escondido. He flew through wide open countryside, wind in his face, "dreaming of all the women I might impress with a motorcycle." He looks back on the freedom of the ride, the wildness of raw speed on the open road, as one of the best times of his life.

Soon after football season ended in his senior year, he quit high school to enlist in the Army. He wanted to be a paratrooper like some of his Indian buddies, but flat feet, bad eyes, and high blood pressure consigned him to the infantry. He got sent to the DMZ zone in the Korean mountains with an ordinance outfit. While there, his buddies would ask him to draw portraits of their girlfriends from snapshots. "I sketched them on 8-by-12 paper and they really liked that. I liked it too, because it made me feel good to be good at something," he said.

After the Army, he practiced art with paint on drywall left in apartments he and his wife rented. To learn more about art, he went to the library and checked out art books. He discovered Rufino Tamayo, Fletcher Martin, Norman Rockwell and Picasso. "I saw pictures of Picasso, shirtless, wearing khaki shorts and an old pair of slippers. It made being an artist seem like a cool lifestyle, and I liked his art."

In his Indian life, he had almost no exposure to art and artists. He wasn't even sure what an artist was until he saw the movies "Lust for Life" about Vincent Van Gogh, and "Moulin Rogue" about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. But he decided he wanted to be an artist. So he practiced. And practiced some more.

Soon he was selling art here and there at festivals and second-hand shops and entering art contests and winning. But his big break came when UPI mistakenly reported him as winning the grand prize at the Scottsdale National Indian Art Festival. A friend of his, Fritz Scholder, another Indian artist from the La Jolla Indian Reservation, actually won, but UPI sent Robert Freeman's name out as the winner to every newspaper. And he couldn't paint fast enough to keep up with the orders.

There's was no looking back. He quit his job as a mailman in 1967, and has been living on his art ever since. It hasn't always been easy. There have been dragons to slay. Once, when his son got real sick, he promised God that he wouldn't drink if his son lived. His son didn't die, and he put down his beer and tequila. He's battled other demons and has sought psychological counseling to help him with rage issues. These days, he doesn't drink and he's got his emotions in balance, but there's no rest, always one more idea that needs to be expressed in art.

Like many other artists in this suffering economy, Freeman's art sales have slumped. But that doesn't stop the outpouring. His latest project is the publication of the "Robert Freeman Surreal Drawing Book 2012," a compilation of surreal pencil and pen-and-ink drawings done over the years.

To know his life, look at his art. It is the summary of his experiences.

Visit Robert Freeman's website.

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