“Lisa Freeman’s Work Makes Me Angry; Or, The Children’s Crusade”: Lisa Freeman Catalog Essay for January 2018 Show by Jordan A. Rothacker

Lisa Freeman is an artist based in Athens, Georgia, who was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1965. She has worked in the medium of painting, but recently her art has shifted to a focus on assemblage art using found objects. Drawn to discarded objects and photographs, Freeman explores the mystery of the forgotten, allowing the objects to lead the narrative and inviting the viewer to participate in the mystery.

A prolific artist and a prominent member of the Athens art community, her works have been featured in galleries and exhibits since 2006, and she has created nine solo exhibitions. Freeman is a self-made artist, and works full time as an artist based out of her in-home studio. Her art inspires you to focus on the uncomfortable, accept the undetermined, and embrace the unknown.

 

I used to teach African Diaspora Literature (mostly Afro-Caribbean and African American Literatures) at the University of Georgia and in the last section I aimed to show why a current diaspora might happen from some African counties. To illustrate the worst of geopolitics I’d focus on child soldier narratives for the simple reason—which I’d confess to the class—that shit runs downhill. Humanity at its worst rolls down in the grossest degree to children.

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Children are the most sensitive barometer to the spectrum of humanity.

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Lisa Freeman evokes children in her work. Nay, she employs children in her work. Child labor! Little cut out images framed in light by early photographic techniques. They work for her, but through her, in service of their own. She expresses them through herself.

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I think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The 1969 novel bore the subtitle, The Children’s Crusade. In the first chapter, the narrator sets up the process for writing about his experiences in Dresden during the war. This is Vonnegut himself (but it’s also a novel, a piece of art, so nothing is true, right?) and he visits an old war buddy to help jog his memory of the experience. Eventually, after overhearing for some time, the buddy’s wife can hold her tongue no longer: “You were just babies in the war … But you’re not going to write it that way, are you? … You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra or John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just as wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.” Vonnegut then promises her that his book will have no role for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne and that he will call it “The Children’s Crusade.” This is followed by Vonnegut and his friend doing research on the actual Children’s Crusade.

Poor children, street children, orphans, the neglected were all rounded up in 1213 by a couple of monks with the idea of tricking them all into a crusade of their own but actually selling them as slaves in North Africa. Duped also was Pope Innocent III, who endorsed an army of children going to fight for the Holy Land. Don’t worry, only half of those thirty thousand kids were ever sold into slavery. The other half drowned on the way. Most certainly the Pope would have objected to the scam, but sending children to die on the battlefield? His god’s will.

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On my left breast, over my heart, I have tattooed, Лайка. This is the Cyrillic word for Laika, which literally means “barker” and it was a second name given to the dog to go up in Sputnik II after she barked on Russian radio. This is my mea culpa spot where I pound my chest with the fraught, hopeless guilt of being human. WE SHOT A DOG INTO SPACE. (She was chosen above others because she was so sweet and enthusiastic). We are the worst species the Earth has ever witnessed, as our treatment of animals shows. Of course, it is worse what we do to each other. That guilt is on me.

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Later in Slaughterhouse-Five, a man named Wayne, who is a friend of our hero, Billy Pilgrim, tells Billy that we are all Heliogabalus.

Heliogabalus was a Roman emperor who came up with very creative ways to torture and kill people. You know, for fun.

Sure, we’re awful. We are the worst. And the only—I mean the most far out there remotely only—thing we have going for us is the gift/curse of self-apprehension. We see us. I see me. And I want to make sure we, us, feel like I do, and that I’m not a freak, not alone, and of all the best ways to do this, art is supreme. Nothing makes the je ne sais quoi communicable like art. It presents and makes you feel. But it isn’t you, you didn’t say that, the person who made that art did. And you felt it, you saw it, you beheld it. You are not alone.

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In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the nature of evil and suffering is discussed by the brothers and examined with stories within the story. Ultimately, Dostoevsky proposes a radical definition of compassion and how to be part of humanity. I must take responsibility for the suffering of others. I am not only the victim, the sufferer, but as a human, as part of this experience and group, I am also the perpetrator. I see the faces of children in Freeman’s work, African-American, Native American, Vietnamese, Japanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Jewish, and they are all suffering.

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There are tiny details all over these miniature worlds that should be investigated. In many pieces mirrors can be found. Mirrors elicit an ontological dilemma. Does a mirror have a being of its own? Each time I look at one I see only myself.

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In Lisa Freeman’s work, mostly small dioramas of domestic scenes peopled by historical photographs and detailed with fitting and ironically fitting tchotchkes and bric-a-brac, what strikes us most are the images of children.

These are the children of conflict zones, but they are also just children.

What side are they on? You ask, you wonder.

They have no side, they’re just children. They want to live and play and laugh all the same, either side. They are the same.

All children are innocent.

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One of the baby photos found in Freeman’s past work is of Adolf Hitler. I recognized him right away. I have stared at that same photo several times over the years. Those dark wide eyes and that dark bowl cut of hair. Full cheeks and a little puckered mouth. I’ve covered the name beneath the photo in a book I own and showed the baby to others and asked, “Do you think this baby is cute?” Everyone says yes.

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All children are innocent.

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There is a black-and-white photograph of a young girl. European, maybe from the early to mid-twentieth century. I would say she is white, but German law in the Thirties and Forties might say different. There is a sign around her neck and written upon it in the crisp whiteness of a photo-editing program we read “WITNESS.” It is an artist who adds this word.

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More than anything else, Freeman is asking us to look, to look and to hopefully see.

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The titles of some of these pieces: “Aftermath;” “American Harvest;” “Great Upheaval;” “Hiroshima Holiday;” “Jewels of Gaza;” “Lost Boys;” “Waiting Place.” The say nothing and they say everything. They are exact and they are ironic. The images we see in them are apocalyptic and historical. Children wear gas masks in the aftermath of horror (begging the question if there is ever an end to horror or is an aftermath just a continuation) or they make smiling faces while we know that they endured African-American slavery or the Jim Crow Laws after slavery “ended.” The face of the same child repeated again and again and again and again, a child’s whose home is now ash and shadow. Children with guns taught the duty of war. Is this Palestine, is that a Syrian refugee camp; is there any difference in a life behind a fence?

The themes are so big that she had to scale the work down to be palatable.

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It would be impossible to say what horrors were embedded in the minds of the children who lived through the day of the bombing in Hiroshima, reads a cut-out from James Hersey’s Hiroshima.

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Of the pieces included in this show there is a collection called Repercussions comprised of window pieces, wall hangings, and more formal art for display. Their shared theme here is the lynching of African-Americans. It spares the victims and holds accountable the passers-by, the looky-loos, the silent consensual participants, the normalizers of hate and the American way. Those are the faces you see in the Repercussions collection. There are children there too, but they were brought.

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For Lisa Freeman, conflict is her readymade, and it she shows in its humblest, most delicate form, the miniature world of children. She gives it depth and detail. Often she gives it four walls. The children’s faces are their own. Their history is our own.

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Lisa Freeman’s work makes me angry and I can’t stop looking at it.

I hope it makes you angry too.

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Jordan A. Rothacker is a poet, novelist, and essayist living in Athens, Georgia, where he earned a Master’s in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. His journalism has appeared in periodicals as diverse as Vegetarian Times and International Wristwatch, while his fiction, poetry, reviews, and essays can be found in such illustrious venues as Red River ReviewDark MatterDead Flowers, Stone Highway ReviewMay DayAs It Ought to BeThe Exquisite CorpseThe BelieverBomb Magazine, and Guernica. For book length work check out Rothacker’s The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), and novella (or “micro-epic” as he calls it) and his first full-length novel, And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds Publishing, 2016). He edited Maawaam’s My Shadow Book (Spaceboy Books, 2017), loves sandwiches (a category in which he classifies pizza and tacos), and debating taxonomy almost as much as he loves his wife, his son, his dogs, and his cat, Whiskey.

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