The Irma Freeman Center for Imagination presents rare original works by Irma Freeman (December 14, 1903 - June 10, 1994). Irma’s name became a part of our city’s landscape with the opening of the IF in 2009. This exhibition called “Impressions & Found Work” is aptly named based on a unique combination of many displayed artworks having been only discovered recently (in basements, suitcases, boxes, in the mail, and, in one bizarre case, in a Shadyside resident’s garbage), along with most of the works that either have never, or rarely, been viewed before. This exhibition also offers high resolution prints of Irma’s paintings available for sale for the first time. The journey of the work reported found, along with a heap of art by Ruth Freeman, were at least six pieces labeled or signed by Irma Freeman. The found treasure owes its recovery to Donna Palermo, a Pittsburgher who discovered, and rescued it from the rain after her landlord had tossed out the pile of dusty, large sketches into the garbage, outside her apartment in Shadyside (hauling in at least 50 items). The origins of how they got to that house on Aiken have been undetermined, even after ace reporter Bill O’Driscoll attempted to find a paper trail. Once Donna brought the art into safety, she began ruffling through it and was elated to recognize a name, whose labels read: “Artist: Irma Freeman” (probably from an entry into the Three Rivers Art exhibition in 1974.) as well as most items signed “Ruth Freeman”. Donna consequently found the Freeman Center and I spoke with her in this past summer. With Bill O’Driscoll from WSEA/local NPR, and a few relatives, including Irma’s daughter Ruth Freeman (78), we all went to investigate. What is shown here are a range of works dated from 1964 to 1974, with the other items not dated, but most likely from the early sixties or late fifties, especially noting one sitter’s Mad Man attire.
Other notable work is the largest painting ever done by Irma Freeman (4 x 8 feet) and most likely only once exhibited, since its colossal size kept it living in one spot for three decades, a house most recently occupied by Ruth. This large work (along with the other sketches seen here) were abandoned by Ruth Freeman after moving out of her Pierce Street dwelling two years ago. Ruth, is also a prolific artist and often has more work taking up space in her home than she can possibly manage. It was her request that this writer (niece to Ruth, and granddaughter to Irma) rummage through the house before it sold, and pull out the best of many paintings, books and art supplies, left by Ruth who moved to a much smaller house. Among the work recovered were sketches of Irma Freeman’s in many sizes, found and saved from the dumpster, along with Irma’s 1929 Passport and other important papers that noted her entry to Ellis Island. Other sketches (such as the portraits of Sheila and Abby) were found in the basement of the longtime Freeman home in a well-preserved suitcase that safeguarded them there for some thirty or more years. (Also found were many other remarkable sketches including a suitcase full of 18 x 23” sketch books with carefully rendered still-lifes, portraits and landscapes. It is a hope that another attempt to uncover and care for Irma’s many more pastel sketches will someday result in their being catalogued, photographed, displayed, and preserved, in a proper archive.
The other paintings here, never seen before by the author, include a wonderfully rich landscape painted on a wooden plank, probably meant to ornate the windowsill for the renovations done to Irma’s small row house during the last years of her life. Other works may have been seen, yet after doing some digging, the author notes that most of the Irma’s exhibitions shown at the IF Center occurred in 2010 (the IF Center’s first year of existence.) That year there were six exhibitions of Irma’s work: “Urban Landscapes”, “Later Portraits”, “Bridges & Fences”, “Waterscapes”, “Pathways” and “Flowers”. In 2015, we showed “Copper Foil Portraits by Irma & Ruth Freeman” and “Natural Renderings”. Other works have been exhibited in various group showings such as the Pittsburgh by Pittsburgh Artist series. Still more work was displayed as solo art exhibitions, but not clearly documented, such as “Cat Paintings”, “Surreal Landscapes” and “Early Portraits”. If you are an avid fan of Irma’s you may find a smattering of paintings that you have seen before. If they are here it is because the author and curator has an intense fondness for them coupled by their capturing a great nuance of Irma’s impressionistic period. It is never-the-less no less phenomenal to have these great paintings, prints and sketches cards by Irma Freeman available for the viewer.
This exhibition also offers a chance to study Irma’s many eclectic styles where her visions, as well as her lifespan (born in in Germany in 1903) fell fairly close to the evolution of Modern Art, ranging all the way from realism to abstraction, inclusive of many genres in between, such as those shown here as “impressions”. Despite many difficulties and obstacles in her life, Irma left behind an inspiring body of work, consisting of over 800 paintings and sketches. The legacy of Irma Freeman is a Pittsburgh treasure waiting to be discovered.
–Sheila Ali, curator