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Heather Freeman's New Media Art: Clint Eastwood with an Aura?

by Jeff Worley

Baseball players on a hitting tear talk about being "in the zone." Time slows down, their hitting eye grows razor sharp, and the ball coming in from the pitcher looks big as a beach ball. Heather Freeman, assistant professor of new media at the University of Kentucky, believes artists also get into zones.

"This is really what I love most about creating art," says Freeman, who came to UK in 2002 soon after earning a master of fine arts degree in visual arts from Rutgers University. "When you're working on a piece, you get so caught up in your art that you enter a timeless zone. You get into a sort of 'unconscious' state, look up, and realize that five hours have gone by."

Freeman's interest in creating art is wide-ranging: she has done sketches, drawings, paintings, sculptures, video art, installation, and mixed media. In the past few years, after working with artists in Heidelberg, Germany, the Art Institute of Chicago and in the visual arts program at Rutgers, her primary interest evolved to a genre called "new media," a digitally oriented art form. Freeman uses tools such as Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro to create what she hopes is "conceptually engaging art," as Freeman puts it.

Photo of cowboys with aurasClick here to see Heather Freeman's cowboy aura series on display.

Although new media utilizes the latest computer technology and software, the subject matter for this art isn't necessarily contemporary, she explains. In fact, for a series of digital prints Freeman has created in the past six years, she reached back in time to another art form entirely: the Hollywood Western.

"I've had an interesting time doing a series that comes out of my earlier work, really, in which I was looking for analogs between pseudo-science and actual science in pop culture, trying to see where one stops and the other begins. I've done a series of digital prints featuring Hollywood cowboy heroes—Clint Eastwood is a main character in these—who have auras above their heads.

Freeman says her idea to do this was triggered (if you'll pardon the cowboy pun), from Kirlian photography, a process in which an image is obtained by application of a high-frequency electric field to an object so that it radiates a characteristic pattern of luminescence that is recorded on photographic film. In this way, physical objects can be seen to have "auras." The process is named after one of its two Russian inventors.

"I wanted to take the idea of scientific auras and graft it onto something non-scientific, in this case a pop icon already romanticized by Hollywood," Freeman says. She adds that in religious iconography auras are manifested as halos to depict a being who is ethereal, touched by god. "What's been interesting is that people in my generation (Freeman is 29) get this—a glorification of the cinematic western hero; but people in my parents' generation have a deeper connection. I'm told that through this series of prints they can relive early experiences with these cinematic heroes in a much deeper way than I ever could." Freeman adds that unlike her, her mother can name every one of the cowboys Freeman has chosen to "beatify." "She even knows the names of their horses!" Freeman adds, laughing.

Maybe it was her mother who prompted Freeman to add, in what she says is her last cowboy aura print, a horse—and to give it an aura as well.

Photo of Heather Freeman's black stallion auraClick here to see Heather Freeman's entire print.

"Maybe because I'd just come to Kentucky, I decided to add a horse to one of these scenes, so I focused on one of my favorite films, "The Black Stallion." This movie, from 1979, tells the story of a young boy, Alec, traveling with his father and a mysterious Arabian stallion on a ship. The ship tragically sinks, and Alec and the horse survive only to be stranded on a deserted island. Alec befriends the horse, they are finally rescued and return to Alec's home.

"The scene I absolutely love is when Alec and the stallion meet up on the beach after the ship sinks," Freeman says, "and I wanted to imbue that scene with all the romanticism and beauty that I feel when I see it."

In Freeman's artistic rendering, the boy and the horse, replete with auras, move toward each other on the beach. Alec reaches out his hand for the stallion, the whole sky awash with a second aura—the Horsehead Nebula. "Again I wanted to get back to the intersection between science and romanticism," Freeman says, explaining that the Horsehead Nebula in Orion is part of a large, dark, molecular cloud first captured on a photographic plate in the late 1800s. She adds that this is not only the last print in her cowboy aura series, but also, at five feet by eight feet, the largest.

One of the things that is so attractive to Freeman about this scene, she says, is that the boy and the horse bond without language. "A lot of my art is about the limitations of language, how image or sound have to be forefronted when language is wonting."

Her latest pieces, a series titled Logophobia/Logophilia, explore both the strengths and limitations of language. "Specifically, this series explores how language and image are used to interpret and explain the relationship between technology and humankind, and also how this usage forms those definitions." One digital print is called "Logophobia-Eat," which Freeman says was inspired by two colleagues and her parents, all of whom had recently been diagnosed with cancer.

"My first semester here at UK a couple of my colleagues got cancer. This was the first time in my life that people I knew around my own age had gotten it," says Freeman, who adds that, happily, both colleagues have "beat it." Then a few months later, her parents each had skin cancers removed. "One thing I realized with all this was how impotent you can feel sometimes trying to talk to somebody about an illness. Or trying to help. It was a stark realization of how weak language is."

Photo of Heather Freeman's "Some things Eat Things."Click here to see entire print of "Some Thing Eat Things" by Heather Freeman.

In "Some Things Eat Things," [see right] Freeman has a faceless image of herself, mouth open, a large sinister shape behind her ("it's a greatly enlarged millet seed") with what looks like a tendril draped over her right shoulder. The edges of the print, which appears to be made of parchment, are torn and ragged. "I don't believe that the message here is as easy to 'get' as in my cowboy auras," Freeman says. "The pieces in the Logophobia series are a lot more open to interpretation." She adds that this series is also much more personal for her—more direct and honest—and more fulfilling than the auras.

Freeman is clearly happy to be at UK and says the support she's gotten since coming here has "been wonderful." Her spirits got an additional boost, she says, when she found out in April that she'd been awarded a 2004 Summer Research Fellowship from UK. "That's great news," she says. "I plan to use this support to return to the Andalusian region of Spain to collect photographs and video for my next project, titled Cordova, in which I'll explore the languages of science and religion, and how these languages form culture."

To view more of Freeman's work, go to