Bill Freeman and some of his amazing art collection—Photos by Oli Robbins
The art and artifacts of Bill Freeman
A collection only an artist could assemble
Surveying the countless fossils, pots, jewelry, and figurines in Bill Freeman’s collection is like traveling the world in a matter of hours. One can venture from Peru to India to Africa to Ancient Greece without ever leaving Placitas. Freeman, an artist, restorer and collector, has rooms in his home that rival certain displays in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His collection is so vast and varied, it leaves the viewer at a loss for words. There is no one region of the world or one genre of art that seems to dominate the collection, which includes seventy-million-year-old fossils, sixteenth-century conquistador armor, Peruvian jewelry, ancient Puebloan pots and much, much more.
It’s not simply the breadth of Freeman’s collection that is remarkable and awe-inspiring, it’s also Freeman’s capacity to play a multitude of roles—he’s an artist and a collector, a student and a teacher, a cowboy and a fine art restorer. Whether by his own admission or not, Freeman has been a gifted artist for most of his life. While he didn’t begin to devote his life to art until the late 1960s, he was exposed to art at an early age. After Bill’s artist-father passed away when he was a young boy, his mother moved the family to El Paso, where she set up a studio alongside Freeman’s grandfather’s dental office. Freeman’s mother began to teach art in her studio, and it wasn’t long until one of her students implored her to “get that boy and teach him something about painting pictures.” But before she had a chance to share her extensive knowledge about art (gleaned from attending Georgetown, where she studied art, philosophy, and theology), Freeman taught himself: “My mom had to go out of town for business and left me in the studio by myself. I set up a still life and painted it while she was gone. The next morning in the studio, my mother and her husband saw the painting and said they could see the talent.” Freeman was about eighteen when he completed that seminal still life, and soon after, he was exhibiting his paintings at a hunting shop in El Paso.
Years later, after working as a wrangler in Wyoming, Arizona, California, and New Mexico, Freeman decided it was time to switch gears and leave the ranch for the studio. Freeman recalls, “The game department had me in the field all the time and I thought, this has got to stop sometime or another.” He began painting fervently, finishing two to three landscapes each day. It didn’t take long for him to amass a large portfolio of work, which was soon after on display at a top gallery in Arizona. Says Freeman, “I began to make a little money painting pictures. That opened up the door to what it was like to make a living as an artist. I felt I was lucky that I could do what I wanted, anytime I wanted, the way I wanted to do it.”
Freeman’s interest in collecting came a bit later when, in 1968, he saw a sixteenth-century Rio Grande Glaze Ware Pot at a friend’s house and felt compelled to copy it. This Glaze Ware Pot, from the Puebloan peoples of New Mexico, ended up having a profound effect on Freeman’s future as an artist and collector. He found that, using Styrofoam as a base and painting with acrylic (he now uses oil paint), he could replicate the pot, keeping “everything just like it is.” Freeman’s enthusiasm for replicating pots led to a keen interest in obtaining them, and his collection began.
Freeman is not only interested in the aesthetics of the objects he collects, but also their cultural background. Says Freeman, “If I buy some of these artifacts, I question the person who is selling them and get all the information I can.” If the seller doesn’t know much about the original function of the piece, Freeman will turn to other wells of knowledge. “I’ve had to learn everything from people I met, or from books, and pick up all the information I can get from different sources.” He’s happy to share with his visitors the anthropological histories of his items, and does so with a bit of humor. Describing the purpose of a monumental, towering carved figure from Oceania, Freeman explains, “That’s Fred. Fred comes from New Guinea. They set up a building and put the young men and young women in the building. They’re supposed to stay there for about a month until they can find a mate. Anyway, they can team up, and Fred sits outside the door and keeps evil spirits from trespassing and going into that building where those young people are.” Freeman laughs, then says, “Don’t you think that’s a good idea?” I agreed that it was.
It’s hard to select a favorite item in Freeman’s collection, but Freeman himself has one: a pot from Red Mesa, near Chaco Canyon. He says that the pot accurately represents the kind of art that was being done in that area and loves the “very primitive” design on it.
Even a specialist would be hard-pressed to distinguish Freeman’s replicas from the originals. His gift at copying artifacts is impressive, as is his ability to work in virtually any media. He is not only an expert replicator of pots, but also ancient sculptures, ceremonial musical instruments, ships—almost anything one could find in a “non-Western” or ancient section of a museum or art history textbook.
The nature of the relationship between Freeman and the art and artifacts in his collection is unique; he not only admires and acquires art, he creates it. Art appreciation and art making are too often separate endeavors. But the collection of Freeman includes the most interesting kind of art—that which results from the mind of a man who is both artist and scholar.