Nature Guardians & Mythic Muses:

The Poetic Sculptures of Douglas O. Freeman

By: Jason Lahman for CODAworx

Figures: Guardians & Muses

“The Lion’s Fountain,” Culver City, CA. [photo: William Short]

As evening falls, a grid of water jets rising from the center of a pedestrian walk begins to glow. The illuminated plumes of spray bathe the square in a mist, covering the whimsical figure of a dancing lion at the center of the jets with a golden hue. “The Lion’s Fountain” in downtown Culver City is a beloved landmark in the nostalgic landscape of old Hollywood. The creation of Minneapolis based sculptor Douglas O. Freeman, the friendly beast may remind some visitors of MGM Studio’s roaring company mascot Leo and the Cowardly Lion of Oz. “It was like fate when I got this commission. I had no idea at the time of my initial design that this area was so deeply connected to the filming of The Wizard of Oz. It was perfect synchronicity,” says Freeman.  The piece has become a favorite with visitors, especially children. “The lion is a focal point for the square, that invites people to connect to feelings of levity and joy.”

“The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan,” Akabane Plaza, Tokyo, Japan. [photo: Mineo Kato]

Freeman’s sculptures draw on the global tradition of mythic statuary. His pieces act as symbolic guardians keeping watch over meaningful community spaces and as the personifications of specific legendary beings, what the ancient Romans called “the geniuses of the place.” An excellent example of this is the monumental bronze series “The Seven Lucky Gods.” Freeman interpreted these beloved deities of Japanese mythology for the Akabane Plaza in Tokyo, bringing a fresh approach and an outsider’s point-of-view to the subject. “The gods are really important within the culture and the fact that I was able to visualize them in such a different way was a major strength.” These gods of good fortune are accompanied by a series of smaller works. “The Seven Animal Messengers,” are set within specially-made window niches around the neighborhood and placed low enough to catch the gaze of children. Like “The Lion’s Fountain,” these mythical figures also act as inspiration - they are guardians as well as muses, firing the imagination and inviting those passing by to contemplate another level of reality.

Forging: Ancient Techniques in a Modern Mode

Freeman works in one of the oldest artistic traditions: the sculptor of cast bronzes and forged metals. “Although in many ways the process of creating these pieces is the same as it was centuries ago, the latest technologies make certain aspects of it a lot easier on the artist - especially the ability to digitally print larger versions of the models once they’ve been scanned in 3-D.”

Freeman welding a bronze fish in his studio                    Clay maquette of a guardian bird [photos: Jerry Mathiason]

A deeply visceral, humane and often humorous quality permeates Freeman’s figures. The nature of the source material - red clay- provides an earth-bound tactility. The marks of the tools which reveal the physical act of sculpting remain on Freeman’s sculptures. The sweep of classical drapery, the interlocking patterns of scales, the fanning feathers of outstretched wings, the streaming of locks of hair - all of these frozen motions bear the marks of the process of building up a dynamic figure in clay. There is an immediacy and an approachability not often found in monumental bronze works made for public spaces. This striking contrast - between the buoyancy of the figures and the formality of the traditional material of bronze- has most certainly been key to the artist’s success.

Seven Animal Messengers

Three of the “Seven Animal Messengers of Akabane.” These bronze sculptures are displayed in window niches at child-height throughout a neighborhood in Tokyo. [photos: Jerry Mathiason]

Fountains: The Flow of Nature and Dreams

Detail of figures on “The Fountain of the Wind,” Duluth, MN.

Fountains and water-based works of art have been a significant part of Freeman’s ouvre for decades. Two outstanding examples are “The Fountain of the Wind” in Duluth and “Mississippi Guardian Birds” in St. Paul. The first is a playful tableau of native trout and sturgeon emitting elegant arcs of water that splash into an oblong pool in which a winged nature-being stretches out her hand against the jets. Lanterns, paving stones and decorative metal elements give the feeling of a miniature temple or theatrical stage. Again, as in so many of Freeman’s other works, the visitor-viewer is invited to step into the picture. The various levels and layers of the tableaux create numerous vantage points so that the fountain is an ever-changing experience. "Mississippi Guardian Birds” is more classically staid in that the fountain itself is a rounded series of stair-step discs flanked by two enormous birds. Freeman’s signature lilt is evident, the birds flaring wings spectacularly signaling a welcoming or perhaps a warning.

One of the “Mississippi Guardian Birds,” St. Paul, MN. [photo: Jerry Mathiason]

“My two latest pieces are also inspired by the presence and the power of water,” says Freeman who is currently in the process of installing two sculptures near a famous spring and aquafer in Decorah, Iowa. Being deeply read in the works of Carl Jung and other mytho-poetic thinkers, Freeman says these pieces partake not only in the lineage of sculptures personifying water spirits but also to the collective unconscious. Entitled “Decorah Song” and “Dream Travelers,” the sculptures resemble an archaic priestess or goddess with arms outstretched, crowned with a diadem and a figure with a parasol riding an animal. “This spring which is so important for the community is also such a beautiful metaphor for the way nature’s powers are sometimes deeply hidden, whether in the earth or in our minds. I love the way those two things come together. I hope those who visit this beautiful place in nature will consider the connection between nature and human nature, the reservoir of water and the reservoir of dreams.”

“Decorah Song,” (foam enlargement) [photo Doug Freeman] and “Dream Travelers," (Freeman with finished sculpture) created for the Decorah Spring in Iowa. [photo: Jerry Mathiason]