“Call me John”. A DM conversation with one of collages biggest heroes, Fred Free.

TWS –The first thing I’d like to know is the story behind your name, Fred Free. As I’m suffering with my silly moniker, I always like to know what’s behind other peoples nom de guerre

FF – As for Fred Free – in 1997 I was still doing freelance illustration – really boring stuff – and I didn’t want to attach my real name with it anymore- for mags, etc.

So  I just randomly opened a dictionary page and the one I landed on had Frederica and freelance at the top – the first and last words on the page. Because it had “freelance” there I seemed a like a sign of sorts so I went with – but just shortened both: Fred free was born. When I got the internet a few years later I just kept it because now it seemed way cooler than my own very normal name. And I stopped doing the boring freelance stuff anyway.

TWS –Wow! So your name is not Fred. Amazing!

FF –Nope. I have the most common name from the 60s and probably before and after for awhile too. Any guesses?

TWS –John?

FF –You got it! And my last name was the most common Irish American name in the US for awhile too. And there are hundreds of us in Boston.

TWS –And people outside the internet call you Fred? Has your moniker won over your real name in real life?

FF –Non-artists know me as John and call me that. Although some call me Fred to be funny.

TWS –hahaha! I know that feeling. Some friends call me weird versions of Max-o-matic…

FF – In what ways?

TWS –Things like  Max-o-moto (my friend Goster stuck with that name and calls me always like that)…

FF –How did you come up with yours though?

TWS –I had to publish my first illustration work on a magazine. And I wasn’t very confident about my work as an illustrator, so I didn’t want to use my real name. So at that time I was reading about a guy named Juan Esteban Fassio, who invented a machine to read Julio Cortazar’s book Hopscotch in infinite different ways, always changing the order of the chapters… The machine was called Hopscotch-o-matic… (in Spanish, Rayuel-o-matic)

FF –Wow, that’s cool! We both didn’t want to use our real names for freelance work… weird.
Speaking of weird… how did you come up with that for your group/site?

TWS –It was my friend’s Ruben B’s idea. I still hate the name…
I wished I had another better option at that time.

FF – Another thing you feel stuck with, I guess?

TWS –Yes, absolutely. I thought of changing it, but it doesn’t make any sense to re-name it 10 years later. I’m ok with it, but I feel it doesn’t transmit what I feel TWS really is. It’s too silly to me.

So, I read you are an architect and you shifted your career to work full time on collage and photo books. Can you tell me about that journey?

FF –That’s a really long one, but I will try to shorten it.

TWS – Yes, I mean it sounds like a great and tough decision. A “follow your dreams no matter what” situation…

FF –It was. Kind of. Sort of. ; ]

Fred Free, Transformed shopping center into school, 1986

When I was a kid I was really into making all kinds of things, but really liked designing buildings and cities and landscapes. And by the time I was 12, decided I wanted to be an architect, so I kind of abandoned all the other creative things I was doing and went down that path in high school and collage and the real world during and after school for several years.

But the real world was not nearly as fun – of course! And by my third year out of college I realized how much I missed other creative pursuits, and how much I already felt tied down to a boring job. So I quit and traveled around Europe for a few months to get some enthusiasm back. I had no intention of leaving architecture, just the place I was working…

But when I came back there was a recession and no full-time work to be found so all I could get was freelance stuff. And a lot of it was for architectural illustration work – something I did a lot of at the job I left. Doing that without the responsibilities of designing a real building and doing it it in my apartment in my pajamas and not commuting to an office was great!

The big thing is that it gave me some free time to re-explore old creative interests like making books and collages and some new stuff too like videos. After awhile the freelance got somewhat tiresome and just silly – a lot of technical stuff – enter “Fred Free” – so I asked my wife if it would be okay to just focus on the fine art side. And here we are.

That’s pretty much it – although I did work on designing buildings as well during the freelance period – just none of my own – I worked for others from my home as well as visiting their offices. it was crazy. I was a pencil for hire!

Fred Free, Transformed catholic hymnal book into collagescape, 1997

TWS –And do you miss anything from the architecture world?

FF –For sure. I love architecture! I just didn’t love what I was working on or the pressure and duration – such long durations – of the projects. If I had landed at a different more interesting office out of college, I may have never left architecture – so never traveled around Europe – and never met my wife who I was fixed up with a blind date through my old office. Strange how things work out. but yes – I wish I could design some buildings now as seen through my collage eyes. Could be fun!

btw- i’m fairly sure that a lot of my collages come out the way they do because of my architectural background and more specifically, interest in modernist minimalist spaces.

TWS –It makes a lot of sense. There’s something very austere but also very expressive in your work, and that’s something that can be found in modernist architecture.

FF –I think that’s probably the part where there is overlap, yes. But it’s the quickness of collage expression that draws me in. Something that I didn’t get in architecture.

TWS –Yes, the urgency and quickness of collage is just the opposite of making a building

FF –It is – although I did feel some of that then – but only in the beginning when you are throwing out ideas and drawing on napkins in bars – loved that conceptual stage of architecture.

Fred Free, First collage after being fulltime stay at home dad, 2004

TWS –This makes me think about your work process… can see in your work both abstract and conceptual sides… I can sense there’s a formal experimentation that is enhanced by ideas that you want to put out through your artworks. Politics, social issues, etc are part of your identity as an artist (it’s not just formal exploration). So, What makes you want to work more often: the urge to put out ideas or the need to manipulate paper and turn it into new things?

FF –First, i’m glad you can see that.

Hard question to answer definitively though. It’s a just a mix of both I think. Every day is different. I have to get stuff out of me whatever it is. The last four years were a nightmare, so it was vital for me to release some of my own frustration over political and social issues, something I hadn’t really done before that. But I also simply manipulated paper and turned it into new things too. It was important I did both and still is – although I’ve backed off of issues work for the moment and have concentrated on more personal exploration. I just needed a mental break from reacting to the world at large. Plus, some of those pieces are not my favorite collages as they came about in a forced way at times.

TWS –Yes, it was pretty visible that Trump had a big influence in your work during the past 4 or so years. How do you feel your art will change in the post-Trump era?

FF –Well, right now it has changed in tone and simply how I go about making work – which had always been fairly random and freeform and now is back to that. But it probably won’t change in that I primarily see myself as a documentor of things and that is bound to continue no matter what happens in this era.

Fred Free, All his inmost

TWS – Something that is part of your identity as an artist is the source material you tend to use. The idea of past is always there (textures, colors, images), but also there’s a connection with the present through the issues you comment about. 

Why you gravitate to that source material in particular? How do you feel your work would change changing the style of source materials?

FF –There is some nostalgia I guess for me using material from my childhood, but I have no interest in conveying nostalgia. If I used newer materials I would get across the same things, but probably be less interested in using the stuff because I would feel less connected to it. Plus, I really just like the way those older magazine and book images and words look. in the end though, they are just a tool – a way to convey something – like a collage itself.

TWS –I do share with you the feeling that the feel of old paper is something new printed material can’t achieve. But sometimes the idea of returning to the past is too heavy for me to work with. How do you feel about having the past so present? Does it bothers you? or is it something that it’s just not important for you?

FF –I get that. But for me, the past – in general – is always part of me and who I am and and always has been. The connectivity between then and now and the future is just there. I feel it. It sometimes weighs me down more than lifts me up, but it’s a powerful draw. Even when I was a kid I was really interested in the past – collected old books and really got into history. But I was also excited about the future – especially through my architectural ideas. Don’t know if that really answers your question, but I guess the shorter answer is that it doesn’t bother me. As long as I feel i’m presenting older things in a manipulated way and re-presenting them in a newer light, i’m good with it.

Fred Free, Ever more will I be

TWS –The next thing I wanted to discuss with you is related with social media. You’ve been sharing your work online since the early days and you are very active online. Which role had internet in developing a career as an artist? And which is your relationship with social media now?

FF – Good question. I wonder what the answer is…
First off, I think it had a lot to do with me focusing on collage.

TWS –How?

FF –Well, I was doing all sorts of creative things in the 90s and then I took time off to be a stay at home dad between 2000 and 2004. When my kid finally went to school in 04, I just needed to work on some quicker things to get back into it and collage was good for that. At the same time I was introduced to the art sharing site DeviantArt where I began to show the stuff. there was a lot of positive feedback so I just kept going with it.

TWS –Your first art social media was Deviant Art? I thought you started with Flickr

FF –It was. I didn’t get to flickr until about 4 years later I think? But I should add that during those early kid-caring days I really got into the game Simcity as a distraction and joined their online site in 2000 where I first really experienced sharing creations online. It wasn’t “art”, but it was a very similar feeling which lead me to create my first website for fellow simcity creators – we made custom buildings for the game – it was quite a success and really laid the foundation for me for future art sharing / social media platforms.

Fred Free, Flourish on the joys

TWS –And all these sharing, showing and creating… how did it affected your work and ideas? Was it a boost of confidence? Was it a way of testing ideas?

FF –Definitely boosted my confidence. Most of the art I made in the 90s nobody ever saw except my wife and since most of my friends were architects who thought that was always going to be my path in life, it always felt a little intimidating showing them what I was working on because I wasn’t sure if it was any good or even “art” in some cases. And I think people saw me one way and had a hard time seeing me any other way. Being able to finally share stuff was empowering. Inspiring. Weird!

btw – I don’t think much of the stuff I did back then was very good looking back on it, so maybe it was okay nobody ever saw it….!

TWS –But building confidence is a key part when starting to develop a career in art (and in anything). So I guess that it was that first exposure was really important to you…

And now, so many years later… what role has social media have in your career? It’s not a matter of building confidence anymore…

FF –It’s just part of everyday life now. At some point it changed from building confidence and simply sharing with online friends to realizing that this was the best way to get my work out there for people to discover from a professional point of view. Not sure how we lived without it now. I’m sure you know what I mean. Right?
If I had had the internet in the 90s…. I just wonder sometimes. But maybe I needed that anonymous time to discover things without any social pressure feelings or “Likes”.

TWS –Yes, I always think about that. I always think that if I had Youtube and tutorials I would be a great guitar player, an excellent coder and possibly a great artist.

FF –haha, well I don’t know about your guitar and coding abilities, but the last one is true nonetheless.

TWS –With internet in the 90s I would know how to paint like a “real” artist 😛

FF –lololololololol!

Fred Free, His words, senses drown

TWS – How do you deal with the pressure of the “like” culture?

FF –I think that’s one of those things I got to learn back in the simcity days – it wasn’t likes then, but a star rating system on a bulletin board service. I took it too seriously and it got to me sometimes when my work felt under appreciated, but over time I just learned to not worry about it. By the time I got to deviantArt I think I was over the whole thing. I just stayed focused on what I was doing and not on how much my work was being liked or not liked. I can only control what I can control.

TWS –Sounds a zen way to approach social networks!
And being around in the (online) collage community for such a long time: How do you think it has changed?

FF –First of all, it seems much larger now. It also seems way more sophisticated overall and accepted as “real art” – at deviantArt in 2004 you had to submit your art into certain categories and they didn’t even have a collage category – you had to sneak it in in other locations. crazy. Beyond that, there are way more people like yourself and the Weird Show who show it off and promote it as the higher art form it can be.

Fred Free, I’ll never be the same

TWS –I’m not sure about what all this social media / instagram thing is really creating.

FF –Here we go…!

TWS –Yes… maybe’s a rabbit hole we don’t need to explore… I know

FF –No no no. Go go go.

TWS –Social media is something that’s so present in everyday life that I can’t avoid thinking about it and wondering what other people think about what is social media doing to us (as artists and as people)…

Likes, following, comments, etc. is somehow a measure of success, but at the same time is something that we can buy (with time on the platform and ads, among other things)… so having 100K followers can be something related with the creative genius someone has, or with a great social media strategy and budget.

And also, some things are easier to digest and like for general audience, and that tends to be rewarded. While other things that need either more time or more context or whatever they need, tend to be vanished.

So what we see doesn’t represent the variety of things we could see, but tends to be what a majority of people has liked. It’s complex and we can probably find tons of examples that show exactly the opposite… but there’s something in how the algorithm works that edits our reality in a very narrowing way. Does this make any sense?

FF –Total sense. I agree

This falls into my I can only control what I can control thing I wrote earlier. I guess I also think about how this has been true forever – before social media and algorithms even – I’ve been fed a steady diet of the loudest, the most colorful, the simplest, the most popular – since I was born and always had to search for things that were different – the quieter, less colorful, more complex, less popular. I guess the counter argument is that if anything, because of the internet and social media more specifically, it is easier to at least find those things if one chooses to look. at least that’s how I need to spin it so I can keep doing what I do. Fuck algorithms!

TWS –I agree with you. This has probably been forever. 

I guess the weird thing now is that the algorithm is invisible. We somehow feel that what we see is what exists. Like when we google something. What we find in the first pages is what “exists”, when there are tons of things that are edited out of our perception of what is real and exists…

FF –True. And I get what you’re saying, but at least you know that. I think there have always been people who knew that and those who never did or never cared and still don’t.

(after the last four years here I think I have just about given up on a certain chuck of people btw, so if I sound like I don’t think it’s a big deal, it’s really just accepting our current reality – even if i’m not thrilled about it.)

Fred Free, Just north of busy route 80

TWS –Yes, my main concern is when things become the norm and we forget about the true nature of these things… But there are so many things to discuss about here, that we can stay forever…

Why do you feel collage is relevant today?

FF –Because it has always been relevant.

TWS –I guess that history is cyclical and things go up and down from time to time. And I feel that collage’s learning curve is something valuable in a time where patience and time is a scarce asset…

FF –Yes, that is a valuable thing, I suppose. Anybody can learn to make a collage in a relatively short time and with little expense. All true.

TWS –The last one I have for you.  What’s your (personal) definition of collage?

FF –It’s like breathing to me at this point – it’s tough to step back and call it something.

TWS –We can say that collage is like breathing for you. It sounds very poetical

FF –Haha, yes. Why not. What’s your definition?

TWS – I asked so many artists this exact same question but never thought about which is my own definition of collage. I guess that is related with playing with context to shape reality in new ways. I guess that with more time I can come up with something that sounds better.

FF –Sounds good to me. that’s exactly how I breathe!

–Find more Fred Free on his website, Instagram or read our FF interview from 2013.

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Tristan Eaton