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A Maker's Life From gathered things, from ideas

What began as an invitation to exhibit sculpture at the Mercersburg Academy for our fiftieth reunion in 2020 has transformed (for reasons we all know well) into this virtual exhibit and artist’s reception in the Spring of 2021.

Artist Reception with Don Freas ’70 — Friday, June 11, at 7:30 p.m. ET

In 1974 I set up a shop and began learning woodcraft by taking commissions for furniture and other custom woodwork. I had no clear idea what I was doing, but I was sure I needed to be making things I could touch, use, and walk around.

It took six years to arrive at a level of proficiency with design and craft that told me style and skill were coming together into original forms. I staged my first gallery show of furniture in 1980.

In 1986, saying yes to a crazy idea, my wife and I put our two businesses and our house in the hands of friends, sold our vehicles for travel expenses, and went with our two young daughters to New Zealand for a year.

In Christchurch I found and connected with L’Etacq School of Fine Woodworking, and was able to use the shop there, and the powerful inspiration of the Maori artifacts that were touring the country, to step out of the utilitarian forms of furniture and make my first sculptures.

The ‘reset’ of a year in New Zealand from 1986-87 initiated far more change than I could have imagined. Poetry and writing soon became tools for expression and exploration. Words wove threads around and through everything, answering questions and questioning answers.

During this period I finished my undergrad degree, and earned an MFA in creative writing and literature.

When we were returning from New Zealand in 1987 I had sidetracked for a week in Bali. The ubiquitous carven images of deities and devil-like creatures, beautiful and frightening at once, fascinated me. I began to see that when we use artistic expression to place interior demons into iconic forms, we can recognize and honor them, and become more aware of when they are messing with us.

Back in the U.S. I began to make that insight a personal practice when I noticed that a subtle feeling of contempt, or disdain, had a way of working in me. I drew faces that expressed that feeling, then tried carving a few in wood. After a couple of tries I came up with a sneering face that felt accurate. I made it into a shrine that still hangs on the wall by my studio door.

Fifteen years later, the same impulse blended together with realizations from writing and poetry and led me to a series of larger sculptures I called ‘tension traps.’ These pieces embody narratives from my life, and touch on universal stories that explore unexamined anxieties.

By 2003 I was back in the shop, making furniture again. As the deep explorations of poetry and introspection settled in with the chisels and saws, reacquaintance with the techniques of craft infused woodwork with a new curiosity for the harmonies and integrity of form.

Between the commissions I was drawn into a pattern of creation that relied on proceeding with no plan, no preconceived outcome, driven by intrigue, intuition, and curiosity.

The same processes that led to the wooden abstracts naturally flowed over into metal work when I learned to weld. The first of what became the Ring Dance series had that same exploratory collaboration with the materials that led to a a series of forms I could not have imagined in advance.

This sort of chaotic interaction with the materials and processes can be mentally challenging because the mind becomes concerned that without a plan how will you know if what you’re doing is right? Or if it will lead to something that holds an enduring intrigue.