The work of Todd Freeman involves paranormal beasts, forgotten maps, botanicals and taxonomies. “For awhile my work ‘had’ to be about subjects that were at least allegedly real, but my cast of characters has grown to include stories from classic and contemporary folklore world too.” In this exclusive interview we got to ask him a few questions about his inspiration and process as well as heard some true stories of the abnormalities of real life that drive his work.
Gallery Hijinks: Please explain your process. What materials and methods do you use?
Todd Freeman: I make copper etchings using pretty by the numbers, traditional techniques. Intaglio printing is really methodical with a lot of variables to constantly keep in check, but for me the final rewards have always won over the more tedious aspects. The character and line qualities of etching are totally unlike anything else, and it’s reached a point where most new work I want to make I envision as etchings.
Etchings can be made using steel, zinc or copper, but I’ve always used copper. Polishing and degreasing the plate before starting is essential. This ensures the hard ground will have a clean surface to fully adhere to, and that my tiny etched lines won’t crumble or peel away in the acid bath. The hard ground is applied to the plate and heated, creating a thin seal over the entire top of the place. This solid layer of asphaltum and beeswax becomes the working surface for the etching. Its much easier to correct errors on paper then burnish them out on the plate, so I try to have all the elements of my drawing composed and finalized before its on the ground. The final drawing is then traced and transferred to the plate, so I have an outline placed exactly where it needs to be. I’ve always been iffy with aquatints, so I prefer to get everything I need on the plate only using etched line.
Once the plate’s ready to etch, its placed in a Dutch Mordant (hydrochloric acid) solution, which eats through to the exposed areas on the plate and creates the lines. The Dutch gives a much slower bite then some other acids, but it also acts in a more uniform way that is ideal for etching tiny marks. Its hard to ever predict an acid’s timing with total precision, so that first time a new plate goes in the acid is always nerve-wracking. Generally the larger lines etch faster then the tiny delicate ones, so I’ve developed a sense of how things usually go. Many of my plates are exposed to the acid for 140-170 minutes, with check ups every half hour or so. When the etched lines look dark and true, the ground is removed with mineral spirits and the plate is ready to print. I’ve been using a mix of dry vine and bone pigment cut with Charbonnel Black etching ink instead of oil, which seems to set the fine lines off better and give a bit richer tone overall. After the excess ink is wiped off, a damp sheet of paper and several printing felts are placed on top and then rolled through the etching press. The finished prints are placed under boards in cotton blotters to dry for several days. For the final hand coloring stage, I use mostly watercolors, but concentrated watercolors and Copic markers are more ideal for certain colors and hues.
Jeffrey Kraus who assisted Todd Freeman in the print making for As It Was Before.
GH: The Wood Maladies is one piece that stands out to me. Can you tell us the story behind this piece?
TF: I found a photo of a bizarre taxidermy rabbit that had gnarled root like growths all over its face. It was such a sad, haunting image, and the context of the other museum pictures in the gallery told that it was also gruesomely real. The caption mentioned the rabbit had been afflicted with Shope papilloma, a disease that creates large horrific keratin growths in its hosts. ‘Horned rabbits’ have appeared in lots of different cultures, from old world bestiaries to the novelty ‘Jackolope’ mounts, and this virus neatly explained a lot of those stories. I was really startled to learn a disease like this could even exist, that these little spores of spontaneous transformation were just floating around. I’d later learn of the ‘Treeman’ of Indonesia, a person who went through a similar ordeal. He started developing strange, horned tumors all over his body after getting a cut on his leg, and living in a remote village, his condition went unchecked for years. He became something of a local sideshow act, eventually getting proper medical attention after appearing in Western TV documentaries. They determined he had some overactive immune disorder, and that the growths were essentially the same material produced by human papilloma virus- the common Planter’s wart.
I love stories like these that shake up our sense of order and restore a bit of fear and mystery to the world. Even knowing the science behind them, these kinds of phenomenon are no less magical, frightening or fascinating to me. In ‘The Wood Maladies’, I included the Treeman’s hands underneath the base of the rabbits’ platform, which also supports a ‘Terror Eye’ adorned tree. While my work is pretty representational, the scenes in my prints are very much manufactured and not real, so I’ve been playing up the design elements a lot more lately. The yellow ‘Terror Eyes’ are inflatable orbs used in crops and fields to scare away birds, they supposedly mimic the visage of a hungry owl or whatever. I would see them in blueberry fields and orchards growing up and always loved their design. I also really liked the idea of a man-made object affecting animal behavior, so I’ve co-opted them here as a general symbol of warning.
GH: When did you begin making prints?
TF: I starting making prints around nine years ago, I was first introduced to them in an intro printmaking class at Grand Valley State University. I had been taking illustration courses through school, but shifted over to printmaking pretty readily. While I basically liked the problem solving aspects of illustration, nothing I made ever felt my own. The craft and character of printmaking perfectly matched a lot my obsessive sensibilities, and let me figure out the kind of work I wanted to make.
GH: How does your installation work relate to your works on paper?
TF: The installation element is still very much something I think about, but I’m finding it’s often tough to negotiate a lot of the resources I really want. People like Mark Dion, Kiki Smith and Cai Guo Quang that can create these rich, fully realized environments have always enamor me. I acquire things here and there, but I’m still trying to figure out how to really flesh out those collections to match the scale and sophistication I have in my head.
Having objects of interest like field guides, taxidermy, hunting items, and other naturalist ephemera in the same physical space as my prints and drawings just feels more whole to me. This spring I took part in Paul Amenta’s ‘Land of Riches’ project, a group exhibition held in the old Grand Rapids Public Museum. The building had sat closed and unused for over a decade, and 167 artists were allowed in to make use of the stored collection, creating new displays and dioramas alongside the old museum exhibits. Being cut loose in a natural history museum and able to handle virtually anything I wanted was amazingly unreal and overwhelming. I eventually created this display as a tribute to Michigan’s bottomless lake legends, using a mix of stuffed birds from the museum and some maps, lanterns and other items I’d gathered. I also tried making my first diorama, something I’d always been interested in. I may explore affixing tiny trees and grasses again sometime; I think model making could play a bigger role in future work.
Sixty Foot Ghost
A Collaborative Tribute to Architeuthis dux, the Giant Squid. graphite, acrylic, watercolor & marker on paper. 42″ x 720″
by Todd Freeman & Meg Perec
GH: What should we expect for January’s exhibition “As it was before”?
TF: I have a number of new etchings and drawings I made for ‘As it was before’, and some other pieces from earlier this year. The drawings are mostly pencil, ink and red carbon on book pages, and are almost all refined, slicker versions of things from my sketchbook. They started out initially as a break from my more formal etchings, and have become a good way to play around with textures and natural forms.
The new etchings follow a similar format to my earlier ones, but the scale has been amped up a bit for several of them. I’ve always loved geological diagrams and cross-sections, so some of the new etchings have those kinds of stylized landscapes and earth processes as their main subject matter. Stories from world folklore still inform a lot of what I make, and the Cadejos and Mawnan Owlman were a couple tales I was really excited to make prints about. This body of work introduced some new elements that have expanded the general vocabulary of my imagery, but I see myself pulling from these kinds of old places for a long time.