Maybe the most loaded yet amorphous word in our nation is “freedom.” Its wildly numerous connotations are equally challenging and comforting.
Starting in late summer, Mobile Museum of Art (MMoA) will join a state- and nationwide effort to engage local perspectives on “freedom.” MMoA’s contribution starts Sept. 1 but don’t look for immediate hoopla.
“We’re not going to have a big opening for it or anything. They’re doing national press about it,” MMoA Curator of Programs Elizabet Elliott said.
It’s in conjunction with the Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman project, The 50-State Initiative. Inspired by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address clarifying Four Freedoms, the pair began the For Freedoms Foundation and reached out to every state for participants. They listed required components for participants, such as using local artists in their respective exhibitions, a town hall meeting and public art pieces. They also announced an initial plan to place artist-created billboards in every state, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
“Paul Barrett — he used to be with a fine-art gallery in Birmingham but has since left — reached out to me. He is basically sort of acting as a liaison for all of the Alabama participants,” Elliott said.
Participating institutions include the Alabama Contemporary Art Center, Birmingham Museum of Art, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, the Wiregrass Museum, the Coleman Center for the Arts, The University of Alabama and others.
Plans are varied. Coleman will create a “truth booth.” UAB will employ a foundry to create interactive and permanent public works.
Originally, FDR cited four essential freedoms undergirding human dignity: freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear. They formed the core values and objectives of the post-World War II American-led order that earned global admiration.
The idea’s impact inspired generations of writers and visual artists. Most famously, Norman Rockwell created a series of paintings embodying the ethos.
That’s the basis for this new plan. Unfortunately, notice was short.
“Initially we kind of wanted to have time to engage local contemporary artists to make new work, but that just wasn’t possible in the timeline we had,” Elliott said. “For most of the museums we work three years out, and even smaller spaces need at least a year, especially if they’re going to get new work made.”
The option was to draw upon an existing exhibit — “Our People, Our Places, Our Collection” — and highlight a specific work for each freedom. Signs will guide guests to the four pieces, all of which will have additional didactics.
The choices are eclectic. The artists are Lee Loring, Gary Chapman, Janice Kluge and Tut Altman Riddick, all diverse in expression and influence.
Chapman’s “Probing the Wounds” (1993) represents freedom of speech. The UAB art professor’s realist oil painting employs visual language in several conceptual forms, with the sign language alphabet presented front and center.
Riddick’s “Celebration” (undated) is drawn from deep in Southern culture, depicting church congregants shouting and dancing in the throes of holy ecstasy. The color print on paper is obviously informed by her roots in Alabama’s Black Belt.
Loring’s abstractionist oil painting “Zombie Marketing” (1944) is linked to freedom from want. A Mobile native who relocated to Maine and New York for most of his life, his vision of a haloed and death-headed bodybuilder holding baskets of plenty questions the manipulation of basic sustenance to cultivate greater needs.
Birmingham artist Kluge’s “The Voyage” (1991) is a three-dimensional work symbolizing freedom from fear. A small glass figure is cradled in a bronze boat perilously suspended from a four-legged framework.
A public program in the pipeline for Sept. 13 will hit all these notes again. Planned currently are a canned food drive (want), voter registration (speech) and possible song and dance exhibitions from the area’s religious array (worship).
“For the freedom from fear we’re thinking about having people write their fears on pieces of paper, then folding them into paper boats and having a little Viking funeral,” Elliott laughed.
Its Thursday timing is perfect. MMoA entrance is free on Thursdays for Mobile County residents.
The project highlights the role art can play in our society when we allow and embrace it. More than mere sideshow or decoration, it can be a vital cog in our expression, our motivation and our endurance.
As the 50-State Initiative founders stated: “Artists practice free speech every day and art plays an important part in galvanizing us to meet, talk and share with our fellow inhabitants of this country.”