MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Maplewood Memorial Library’s featured artist of the month, Ronald Freeman, is living proof that it’s never too late to pursue a true passion. Freeman’s art is on display through the month of February in the library. His repertoire includes a variety of techniques, including pastels, watercolors and even ballpoint pen.
Freeman, a Bronx native who now resides in Orange, did not follow the typical route to becoming a locally-shown artist.
“I studied art in high school while attending the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, but I went on to the Fashion Institute of Technology to study advertising design and didn’t finish,” Freeman said in an interview.
Except for sporadically drawing for pleasure, Freeman thought he had left his artistic days behind him as he continued on to a lengthy career with Verizon Communications. After being laid off with an early retirement package approximately five years ago, Freeman decided to go back to what he had always considered his true passion, though never expected it to be anything more than a pastime.
“I had this gift that I let lay dormant for many years, and I decided to go back to it, and a friend encouraged me to start showing my work,” Freeman said. “Before that, whatever I created stayed in my house and I never thought to do anything with it.”
After showing some of his work at the Hat City Kitchen Street Festival in Orange and receiving positive feedback, Freeman decided that it was time to return to art in a more serious capacity.
He eventually progressed to showing some of his work in local galleries such as the Pierro Gallery in South Orange and the Firehouse Gallery in Orange, where Joanne Beckerich of the Maplewood Memorial Library saw his work.
“Joanne saw my work and invited me to show my work at the library for Black History Month and that was how I became introduced to the library,” Freeman said. “It’s been a very humbling experience for me because for the longest time my art was in my house and that was it.”
Freeman credits his Bronx upbringing as the inspiration for many of the pieces that he has created in recent years, citing the culture of the storied New York City borough as influential on everything from the colors he chooses to the subjects he depicts.
“Growing up in the Bronx was all about the music and the graffiti and hip hop and music, and it’s the driving force behind everything that I do, so I do a lot of music icons in my artwork,” Freeman said. “My body of work is always changing because I keep learning new things and my portfolio speaks to that. I have a body of work called ‘Colored People Only,’ using colors other than their actual skin colors. If I can create a Miles Davis piece in shades of green, and you still know who it is, then I have done my job.”
Introducing local artists to the public, and to art lovers, is just what Maplewood Memorial Library had in mind when it started its “Artist of the Month” series about four years ago.
“We’ve always wanted to have art on our walls,” Beckerich, who heads the programming and publicity efforts for the library, said in an interview. “The Friends of the Maplewood Library funded the cable-hanging system for us a few years ago, and we were able to make that a reality.”
Beckerich said the library mostly features local artists — a mix of those she has invited to show and those who have contacted her for the opportunity to show there.
“We have different artists each month with an opening reception that includes live music, and they range from photography to abstract, to all sorts of materials: watercolors, collage and, in Ronald’s case, ballpoint pen,” she said. “People have especially enjoyed his pastels because they are eye-catching and bold and they look terrific on the wall.”
Freeman said his work shown in the Maplewood Memorial Library has been well received, and he is hopeful that the opportunity will parlay into more local exhibits.
“If you asked me four years ago if I would be painting and doing murals, I would be saying, ‘No way, Jose,’ but I would have been wrong,” he said. “I’ve had a great reception for the art in the Maplewood library. It was the first time I spoke with a group about my artwork in public. People asked me questions about it and when people start asking you about your work, it comes pretty easily.
“My work is not heavy or complex, I explain how I make it, why I make it and what message I am trying to convey,” Freeman continued. “My goal is to continue showing at galleries and hopefully one day in a museum, and for people to enjoy it and keep enjoying it. I just picked up a pen or a paintbrush and started doing the work.”