Battle Creek

Artist Andrew Freemire came home to Pennfield 30 years ago. He found friends, patrons, inspiration.

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

What Andrew Freemire lacks in ego and pretension he makes up for with a solid work ethic and creativity in every piece of art he creates.

Freemire, who was born and raised in Pennfield, has had Christmas ornaments he designed on the White House Christmas tree and other work displayed in galleries in Maine, at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, and in numerous locations around Battle Creek, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Battle Creek Community Foundation. Among his most recent work is a metal sculpture titled “Reflection” installed in 2019 in the Tim and Lyn Kool Reflection Park.

The Kool Reflection sculpture in Kool Refection Park.After spending the earlier part of his life living in Detroit and Maine, he came back to Pennfield in 1992 with his then-partner, Hugh. He was drawn back after his mother told him during a phone call that she and his father were planning to sell the family home, located on four acres next to his beloved Wanadaga. Located off of Capital Avenue, a gravel driveway leads visitors through a lush lawn dotted with some of his sculptures to the home designed and built by his father and his mother which is filled with more examples of his work.

“My mom wasn’t yet 70 and my dad was in his 80s. They listed all of the reasons why they were selling it. I tossed and turned for two weeks because I always had this home to come back to. It has always been a haven of warmth and understanding and it’s a very rare situation when someone has that,” Freemire says. “My parents accepted me for me way before I even knew that I had this creativity. It was tough. Hugh said we need to move back.”

While Freemire was in Maine, Battle Creek was enhancing its vibrancy with the construction of signature destinations including McCamly Place and the Lakeview Square Mall. This development activity factored into his decision-making to come back.

He and his partner sold their home in Brunswick, Maine, which had taken four years to build and was where they lived for two years. Prior to the move to Brunswick, Freemire owned an art gallery called “Dragonfly” in Waldoboro that sold ceramic work by other artists. Hugh worked for L.L. Bean. In addition to operating the gallery, Freemire also worked on commissioned pieces and took on the job of renovating a summer home for a wealthy couple from Boston during his second summer in Maine.

Andrew Freemire’s long-time home.The couple got to know him during frequent visits to his store. 

“They said, ‘We’re buying a little place down the shore and we want you to renovate it.’ A couple of weeks later, I thought, ‘What the hell did I just say?’” I ended up selling my gallery and worked on this house for three years. Flora, the wife, had a very big heart, but she was very particular,” Freemire says. “When they passed, most of the art I had created for them, which was displayed in the house, was crated and shipped back to me.”

That work is among a growing collection of pieces that fills the garage, and chairs, sofas, and tables in the living room of his Pennfield home. 

An artist and an engineer

While it may be unexpected that a man known for his paintings and sculptures would take on the job of renovating a home, Freemire says he had an obsession with building and creating that began in childhood. A sketchbook of designs he came across resulted in one of his earliest designs, a 12-foot-tall, two-seater Ferris wheel that he engineered and constructed when he was 15-years-old.

Battle Creek artist Andrew Freemire is very enthusiastic about life, creativity, and his art.The seats would be 12 feet up in the air and measured 2 X 12 feet. Freemire constructed supports for them and says his mother filmed six younger neighbors who had agreed to serve as test pilots on the initial ride.

His father supported his endeavors by making sure he was well-equipped with power tools and supplies.

“I had a fascination with engineering and had erector sets with motors and I would build these amusements and when I was done I would connect them,” Freemire says. “I love math, engineering, and architecture, and all of those played together for me.”

In his senior year at Pennfield High School, he designed and constructed a carousel for the school’s production of “Carnival of Music”. The carousel incorporated elements of forced perspective, a technique that employs optical illusion to make an object appear farther away, closer, larger, or smaller than it actually is.

Freemire says he used the technique to make the carousel appear larger than it really was. He says his art teacher, Paul Frederick, was “amazed” that he knew about the technique.

It was not the first time that one of his instructors would make a pointed observation about his abilities. His counselor, who was also his art teacher, during his 7th-grade year said, “You’re a good student and very social. But, little Andy, you’re not wired like other kids and you see things deeper than most adults.”

Andrew Freemire’s creations.Freemire says this ability to look beyond the obvious was formed during time spent with his grandfather, who was his primary caregiver since both of his parents worked outside the home.

“My grandfather would take me down to the creek and we would hear peepers and he would tell me where they live and he would take me into the woods and describe the flora and fauna,” Freemire says.

This would be the start of Freemire’s lifelong ability to seamlessly blend the creation of art with the practicality of its development. After high school, he enrolled at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit adjacent to the Detroit Institute of Art.

“I walked in and I smelled this flux of clay, paint, and fiber, and my body was completely overwhelmed and I had this warm feeling and I knew that I was home,” Freemire says.

Battle Creek artist Andrew Freemire is very enthusiastic about life, creativity, and his art.He remained at the College for Creative Studies until he ran out of money when he was 21-year-old. He applied for a job with the former J.L. Hudson Department Store in downtown Detroit in their design department and went to work designing window displays.

“We had 42 city windows. Windows are windows, but when they’re city windows, they’re spectacular,” he says. During his seven-year run with Hudson’s, he also created trade show sets for the Detroit News, which ran a story about his work with foam core. He continued to work with this material and produced pieces including a custom-order Menorah, seven feet high and nine feet wide, for a client in Battle Creek.

Sculptures he created using other materials were among entries into the 2010 and 2012 ArtPrize. The 2010 sculpture, was displayed at the YMCA in Grand Rapids because of its size. It is titled “In My Life” and was originally created in 2008 for a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Collaborative Exhibit. The sculpture included 12 painted canvases topped by a multicolored sphere and stood 16 feet tall. 

The 2012 entry, titled “Life Anew”, was commissioned for the Grace Family Health Center in Battle Creek where it was installed in the Behavioral Health and executive offices lobby. It is a long trilon structural piece of painted wood and acrylic painted with images of delicate, but strong angular, colorful lines. 

“It’s meant to show how you grow your roots to give one stability in their life,” Freemire says. “I heard that a client was speaking to a friend of hers and said it looked like an ascending angel.”

Looking out a window of Andrew Freemire’s home to the Wanadoga Creek.This was among a number of professional commissioned pieces he worked on after moving back to Pennfield. He says it didn’t take him long to build up a patron base locally similar to the one he still has in Maine.

In addition to the WKKF, he has received commissions from the Battle Creek Community Foundation and private individuals, and business owners in Battle Creek. The BCCF also has a sizable collection of Freemire’s work.

Unlike the majority of artists who leave the installation of their work to others, Freemire prefers to do that himself. His paintings are wrapped in a tailored black sailcloth shroud and the client doesn’t see the painting until it’s installed.

“It is unusual for an artist to do their own installation, but it’s important to me that the painting or sculpture is displayed in such a way that people will receive the most visually correct perspective and lighting of it,” he says.

Pragmatism and practicality

“The level of patron that comes to me is educated and experienced in the arts,” Freemire says.

Andrew Freemire’s creations.Rather than leaving the interpretation of what they want totally up to him, he says he will write a one-paragraph description for them to look over after he consults with them and before he begins his work. He says it’s important to really listen.

This is what appeals to his clients. 

At the time he moved back to Pennfield, Freemire was almost 60 with plans to retire at 65. He scuttled those plans after seeing the growing demand for his work and expertise and the opportunities he saw to teach and mentor that would give him steady income streams. This all appealed to his practical sensibilities.

In 1999 he co-chaired the former “Midnight at the Creek” event, Battle Creek’s New Year’s Eve celebration featuring a wide variety of entertainment and artistry from across the country. At the time he was going through the process of a “divorce” from Hugh after a 14-year relationship.

“During that time was the height of our divorce. It was a very strange responsibility to maintain total professionalism,” he says. He managed because he had no other choice. As the new year dawned so too did the realization that he was now on his own and couldn’t survive financially on six projects a year.

“I have to work work. I was terrified and I thought ‘My God, Andrew you’re 65’ and I pulled my portfolio together,” Freemire says.

Andrew Freemire’s creations.On a Friday afternoon, he walked into the Battle Creek Public Schools offices and asked to meet with the director of their arts program, who was Lorraine Cowe. The two met briefly in what he describes as an atmosphere of “structured chaos.” Cowe asked him to come back the following Monday.

When he returned they went through his portfolio and talked. “Then she said, ‘I don’t know where you came from, but I’ve been looking for you.’ That was the beginning of three wonderful years.”

Freemire was hired as an artist-in-residence with BCPS Fine Arts Academy that provided studio space for students to work in because he felt that they needed to feel like real artists. During that time he and fellow teachers developed an Annual Report Performance that took place at Kellogg Community College. The Annual Reports, three in all, featured their artistry in various disciplines including painting, printmaking, dancing and music, drum corps, and choir under the direction of instructors with BCPS.

Cowe applied for and secured numerous grants to fund the school district’s Fine Arts Academy. At the end of his first year with BCPS, the arts program received funding through a Kennedy Center grant and additional funds from the BCCF which Freemire used to take five students accompanied by adult chaperones on a trip to Toronto. The trip culminated in a production of the “Lion King” at the Princess of Wales Theatre. He wanted the students to have a first-class, big city experience so he reserved rooms at a five-star hotel, took them on sightseeing tours of attractions like the CN Tower, and exposed them to different ethnic cuisine every night of their five-day stay.

The students saw the “Lion King’ on their last night in Toronto. Unbeknownst to them, Freemire had arranged for them to go backstage after the show to meet the actors, many of whom remained in costume for the visit.

“One of the students told me that we could have just done this and he would have been amazed,” Freemire says.

The impetus for the trip was a desire to show students from various backgrounds what a big city and its art scene were like. These students, Freemire says, had never before had the chance to do this.

At the conclusion of his third year with BCPS, Freemire and the school district decided to part ways and he was approached by Linda Linke, former Executive Director of CIR (Community Inclusive Recreation) about serving in a similar capacity with her nonprofit.

His first task when he joined the organization in 2005 was to create an art studio inside a building that had been loaned to Community Inclusive Recreation by the First Congregational Church. That studio would become a creative space for participants of CIR to hone their skills in various art forms, including weaving, drawing, and silk painting. The work was then available for purchase. Similar to the Annual Report Performance he did with BCPS, Freemire orchestrated events that showcased the talents of his students and raised money for Community Inclusive Recreation.

In 2008, Linke had to inform Freemire that his position was being eliminated along with the arts program he had developed because of funding shortfalls.

About the time he was let go from CIR, Freemire’s mother had been diagnosed with a blood disorder and she became his primary focus. He cared for her until she passed in 2012, took on limited commission work, and had his work displayed at the 2012 ArtPrize.

At the age of 75, he continues to work on various projects for clients and says he has never considered leaving Pennfield to go back to Maine or to a larger city because of the network of close friends he has established here and his family home.

“This is my soul and my home. Maine has passed. Why go back to a place I knew 25 years ago? Those experiences are lovely and formative, but they’re gone,” he says. “Should I hear of a project anywhere in the world I could work from here.”

 

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.