Q+Art: Fiber Artist Emma Freeman Survives Quarantine with Meditative Weavings
Last year, Emma Freeman moved back in with her parents. The fiber artist had just closed her brick-and-mortar shop in Saint Paul, MN, where she taught community art classes and sold second-hand goods. Freshly divorced and with an empty bank account, Freeman made the 300-mile trek from Saint Paul to her childhood home in southeast Wisconsin. As she sat at the art desk in the room she used as a teenager, Freeman wept over the loss of her former life. And then she got to work.
Freeman, like many others, faced devastating financial and emotional hardship when COVID-19 hit American shores and leached inward toward the middle of the country. Over the last year, she’s rebuilt her practice with new parameters, shifting between writing poetry, reading spiritual texts, and sewing cloth books. “I found a book structure hidden within a linen curtain I had found at a thrift store many months before, and thought I would try stitching in it,” she explains. “That opened a beautiful doorway into this healing practice.”
Though Freeman spent her time in quarantine grieving, she was able to channel much of her melancholy into deeply meditative works. She combines found natural materials with fuzzy thread, woven and then wrapped around brambly bird nests and knobby birch bark strips. With a focus on the principles of Zen Buddhism, Freeman’s work evolves slowly, allowing room for thoughts to appear and then disappear as she weaves, writes, and meditates. “As I sit and watch what is in front of me and bring my deep attention and awareness to it, I start to notice doorways that invite me to walk deeper into the world of the materials and deeper into my own inner experiences,” she writes in her artist statement.
Ultimately, Freeman’s process-oriented work allows her to pass through new doorways, and into a second life. In doing so, she reveals grief as a vital part of the human experience, one that must be fully felt and honored for real growth and peace to manifest.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Emma Freeman discusses the power of transformative healing, designing your own art education, and the soothing sound of bird song.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Emma Freeman: I can't speak for any other artist, but some of the books that have impacted me deeply recently are Trust the Process: An Artist's Guide to Letting Go by Shaun McNiff, The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life by John Daido Loori, Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World by Pema Chödrön, The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns by Matty Weingast, Devotions by Mary Oliver and The Deepest Peace: Contemplations From a Season of Stillness by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
EF: Jeoung Kwan, who is a Buddhist nun living in a monastery in Korea. She was on the Netflix series A Chef's Table, and I was deeply moved by her and would love to eat the food she makes and walk through the forest and along the creek where she lives.
What are you trying to express with your art?
EF: I am letting what wants to emerge come through me in my art. I used to feel like I was trying to chase something I couldn't name as an artist and now I am letting it happen through me and deeply listening and responding to what I hear and notice. If my work can express the gifts of meditation, the power of difficult, messy and deep transformative healing, and the deep magic and inherent connection we all have to this earth that so many of us have lost but is vital to our deep and true fulfillment and survival, that would be wonderful.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
EF: Doing intense, deep healing work on myself so that I could open up and connect to my true self that was buried underneath so many layers of conditioning, trauma, and coping mechanisms. That difficult and painful work connected me to a space within myself that is peaceful and expansive where my art now emerges from.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
EF: "What art offers is space, a certain breathing room for the spirit." —John Updike. I return to that quote over and over as a reminder to myself about why I make art. It is to continue to connect deeply and then share whatever emerges with the world so that it may offer some peace, some ease, and some inspiration for someone else.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
EF: I think it completely depends on the person. I don't think it is necessary at all, but I think there are some things that can be helpful about a formal program, in particular the focused time to explore who you are as an artist and try different mediums. But both of those can be done on your own too, which is how I have done it, mostly. You have to have determination and be resourceful, but it is incredibly empowering to design your own education as an ongoing life practice and learn whatever you are drawn to learn at different times and let that guide you forward.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
EF: Perhaps it already exists, but I would love to experience more spaces that weave together collective healing, meditation, and art making together.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
EF: I would like my life and my art to have a healing, positive impact on this planet and help alleviate suffering in humans, animals, and all living beings.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
EF: Mostly silence, which is often full of birdsong when my window is open. I have also been listening to instrumental music that is soulful and soothing.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
EF: It changed everything. When the pandemic hit, I was running a brick-and-mortar shop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where I taught art classes to my community, hosted artists to teach and show their work, and I curated and sold secondhand items like clothes, furniture and home goods. I was also teaching art classes around my community and doing freelance photography jobs. The pandemic forced me to shut down the shop unexpectedly, stop teaching altogether, and stop photographing. Work came to a screeching halt. A few weeks later, I got divorced and moved out of my house and back in with my parents in Wisconsin. I went from living in a city, rushing around, running three businesses, constantly exhausted and burned out to sitting quietly at a table in my bedroom, grieving deeply, which is when I started to explore the art making I am doing now. I am so grateful for the massive shift, even though it was awful and so painful to go through. It changed my life.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
EF: I have no idea but I hope for the better, in the long run.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
EF: I am part of a group show at a gallery in July 2021 at The Center for Visual Arts in Wausau, Wisconsin. This is the first time I will be showing my fiber work in a physical public space, so I am looking forward to that. I am also excited to continue writing poetry and to continue connecting more deeply with nature and see what happens.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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