Irma Freeman was a German-born Pittsburgh artist who inspired many young people during her lifetime.
She left a legacy of hundreds of paintings, and other works of art. Her work ranges from realistic portraits to fauvist/post-impressionist, wonder-filled landscapes. The majority of her artwork she made after the age of 70, continuing to work fervently until her death at age 90, in 1994. In 2003 there was a huge retrospective of her art to celebrate her 100th birthday at the Garfield Artworks. 400 Pittsburghers came to see 114 paintings; art installations, films, videos, and literary works, some about her life in pre-World War II Germany. In one homemade book she describes how during World War I she got lost in the dark and accidentally crossed the border. She was accused of being a spy and kept over night. Terrified and scared, she was let go by the military and she to return home safely the next day. Her family moved around a lot, due to her father’s profession.
The daughter of a Rabbi canter, Irma (born Miram Deborah Gutel) left Germany in 1925, prior to Hitler’s anti-Semitic campaign. She was the first in her immediate family to immigrate to the US, arriving by boat to Ellis Island. After meeting up with distant relatives in Topeka, Kansas and taking on odd jobs, she met and married Louis Freeman. The couple moved to Pittsburgh, where Louis and his brother Abraham were born to Jennie Sophie and Charles Freeman. The couple had two children, Sylvia Jean and Alfred Morris (affectionately called, Alphie).
Raising a family during the depression, the Freemans never seemed to rise above the poverty line (Later Lou sold novelties and souvenirs of sports’ games, while Irma worked as a portrait painter; occasionally working at the downtown Kaufman’s Department store.) Although it was barely enough, Irma always found comfort in her artwork, a passion that, despite severe obstacles, she passed onto the future generations of her family. In 1939, tragically, the Freemans lost their only son. Alphie’s young life was taken at the age of four by Encephalitis, discovered after he had fallen down the stairs at their East Liberty, Pittsburgh home and went into a coma. This intense shock left Irma mute for almost two years, until the birth of a third child, who she named after her cousin Ruth. Sadly, her cousin Ruth and several other close relatives died during the Holocaust in the horrific concentration camp, Auschwitz. Irma also lost her brother Leo suddenly, who was a rabbi who publicly spoke against the Nazis. His car was bombed by Neo-Nazis post Second World War, in Lake Placid New York, following an inspired speech. At his request, he was buried next to his nephew, Alphie, in the Gates of Wisdom Cemetery, in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.
Despite these intense personal hardships, Irma found solace in her painting. During the 50s, Irma studied painting with Samuel Rosenburg, along side her daughter Ruth, at Carnegie Tech. (now Carnegie-Mellon University). For a while, she taught painting at a local Catholic Art College. Although not significantly recognized nationally, Irma went on to create a tremendous body of work, full of a richness that inspired her family and friends, as well as a regional following of young artists. It is her notion of imagination and wonderment that lead us to an idyllic world: using color and form, she was able to transcend her little house in the ghetto. Though she lived in that rundown row house for over 50 years, its cracked and pealing walls were covered with beautiful artwork, transforming its dilapidated state into a place of color-filled dreams. During the last decade of her life, Irma’s work was exhibited throughout galleries in the city of Pittsburgh along side contemporary artists, who were often artistic admirers of her aesthetically vibrant, fantastical compositions.
Irma has a story that we (the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination) want to tell, and a tremendous amount of work that we need to preserve. Because, through art, Irma created the world into a better place, we envision her vast legacy of paintings to represent ideals that will inspire a cleaner, more beautiful earth. Irma Freeman’s work promotes a consciousness of self-preservation, amid challenging surroundings. The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination is a place to help youths reach great achievements, beyond impoverishment and lack of motivation, toward a greater wealth of intrinsic value. The IF Center is somewhere students and patrons alike gain a sense of environmental and humane responsibility, as well as a place where we can preserve and exhibit Irma’s vast body of work for generations to come.
December 14, 1903: Irma is born Miriam Gutel on the first day of Chanukah in Malsch-Baden, Germany, the second of four children to Abel Gutel (a Rabbi Cantor) and his wife Theresa. Irma’s family moves around as her father serves at various synagogues throughout Germany. As a child she is interested in drawing, and music. Her first encounter with art she recalls first drawing with bits of charcoal from the fireplace.
World War I: While walking out alone Irma is mistaken for a spy and arrested by German soldiers. The memory of this event appears in several of her works.
1924: Irma emigrates from Hamburg, Germany to the US on the steamship Resolute. She becomes ill on board and is detained three weeks on Ellis Island. She then goes to live with her uncle in Kansas City, Missouri.
1929: Irma marries Louis Freeman, a magician and novelty salesman from Pittsburgh. The couple move to Pittsburgh.
1933: Irma gives birth to a daughter, Sylvia Jean Freeman
1935: Irma gives birth to a son, Alfred Morris Freeman
1939: Alphie dies of encephalitis, and after falling down a flight of stairs.
1939 – 1940: Irma is traumatized by the death of her son and is unable to talk for nearly two years.
World War II: The Freemans are unsuccessful in their attempt to help emigrate Irma’s cousin and childhood best friend, Ruth Poriizky, the daughter of the famed German writer Elias Porizky. Her uncle dies before Ruth and her mother are put in the concentration camp Auschwitz, where they both suffer a horrible death, among thousands of others.
1940: Irma gives birth to Ruth Freeman, named after her cousin Ruth Poriztzky.
1943: Irma moves with her husband Lou to a row house in Shadyside they live for the rest of their lives.
1940: Irma becomes interested again in painting and attends painting classes at St. Joseph’s Academy; where later she was asked teach some art classes. Throughout her life Irma begins to fill the walls of her little house with her many paintings. (Over her lifetime she made over 500 works of art).
1950s: Irma’s daughter Ruth attends Carnegie Institute and introduces her mother her teacher, the well-known painter Samuel Rosenberg. Rosenberg takes an interest in Irma’s work and often gives her feedback. He also invites her to attend some of his classes. Irma also begins to work at Kaufman’s Department store, sketching portraits.
1960s: Irma’s daughters’ Sylvia and Ruth both marry; and give birth to seven grandchildren.
1980s: Irma begins exhibiting her works along side her daughter Ruth.
1988: Louis Freeman dies and Irma goes into a deep depression for months, until she begins to paint again.
1990s: Irma continues to paint profusely. She writes three books (two about her life and one about her cat). Irma has several group and solo exhibitions.
1993: Irma celebrates her 90th birthday with a large exhibition at the Garfield artworks.
1994: After struggling with her health for many months, and numerous hospitalizations, Irma Freeman dies on June 10th.
1994: A memorial tree is planted, dedication to Irma Freeman, as part of an installation by Bob Bingham at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
1995: Irma’s work is exhibited at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in an exhibition called “Outsiders: Self-Taught Artists” curated by Pat McCardle.
2003: Garfield Artworks hosts a multi-media 100th birthday celebration of Irma’s work. 114 of her paintings are exhibited. 400 attend.
2008: Renovations begin for an art and green energy center, and museum of Irma Freeman’s work, dedicated to her as The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination.
2009: Grand Gala opening of The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination
- “Urban Landscapes: Paintings by Irma Freeman” April 2011
- “All in the Family: Early Portraits. Paintings by Irma Freeman”, February 2011
- “A Personal Judaism: Paintings by Irma Freeman”, The IF Center, December 2010
- “Beyond Realism: Later Portraits: Paintings by Irma Freeman, The IF Center, 9/2010
- “Waterscapes: Paintings by Irma Freeman”, The IF Center, August 2010
- “Pathways: Paintings by Irma Freeman”, The IF Center, April 2010
- “A Friendship in Flowers: Paintings by Irma Freeman”, The IF Center, February 2010
- “The Visionary Art of Irma Freeman”, The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, 2009
- “Irma Freeman a Celebration of her Life and Art”, Garfield Artworks, December 2003
- “Outsiders: Self Taught Artists”, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 1995
- Exhibition of Paintings on Paper & 90th Birthday Celebration, Garfield Artworks, 1993
- Exhibition with Brian Richmond & Bob Kollar, Second Floor Gallery, Mt. Olivier, 1992
- “Recent Paintings by Irma Freeman”, the Turmoil Room, Wilkinsburg, 1991
- Solo Exhibition at the Carnegie-Melon Student Center, Pittsburgh, 1991
- Exhibition with Daughter Ruth at Mellon Bank, Craig Street, Pittsburgh, 1988
- Exhibition with Daughter Ruth at the Wild Sisters Gallery, Pittsburgh, 1986
- “Ruth & Irma Freeman: a Mother & Daughter Exhibition”, WPU Gallery,
- William Pitt Union, University of Pittsburgh, March 1986