I first became aware of Roy Freeman and the work he was doing on behalf of his father, Don, when he left a comment on a post I did for the book Mop Top. Though Don passed away in 1978 at the age of 70, he is known throughout the world for writing some of the most beloved titles in children's literature, including the story of the department store bear, Corduroy, who just wants to be loved despite his missing button. Through the website Roy set up to perpetuate his father's legacy, I came to find out a lot more about Don. A California boy at heart, he found his artistic voice on the streets of New York, first as an aspiring trumpet player and then as a sketch chronicler of the New York theater scene, then as a book illustrator. I don't wanna give all the biographical details away as the site is a wealth of fascination and Roy has done a fine job of collecting and chronicling some of his father's finest moments. Deeper than that though, Roy has worked to get titles back in print and even continues to pull sketches and books from the archives to introduce to the world for the first time. In probing deeper, I discovered that this was Roy's way of traveling back to his father, of getting to know Don as a man and an artist. I have asked Roy to share some of his thoughts (and photos) on that note, and I will post them over the week. What he revealed is truly a moving testimony to the sometimes volatile bonds between father and son (as well as artist and family) and a look at the healing that can come from looking within to find a way home. ~ Scribbler
I grew up with a larger-than-life, creative father. We could not be more opposite from one another. He was extraverted. I was introverted. My father was a hundred-percent creative artist. His creativity had no bounds. He was a born performance artist before there was a name for this. He could walk into a room empty-handed and have everybody smiling, laughing, or amazed in seconds. He was not a father in the family sense. He never played with me; he was rarely at home. If I was ever with him, it was because he “dragged” me to his work, to his artist friends, or to the theatre in New York, which he loved. (I use the word “dragged” as the introverted boy Roy experienced it. Of course he did not “drag” me literally!) Because I only knew him with other people and they all called him “Don”, I also called him “Don,” never “Dad”. When other children would say to me, “Gee, it must be great to have a dad like that!” I thought to myself “What ‘dad’? He spends more time with other children than he does with me!”
This is a photograph from one of the few days my father and I spent together. I was five years old at the time. We went for a walk in Santa Barbara, California. Here we are by the wharf near the harbor where I later would go fishing. As always, Don had his sketchpad with him as this was actually a project he was realizing with a photographer friend of his. Don called the project “A Sketching We Will Go”. The photographer would take a shot of me doing something and Don would make a sketch of what he thought I was imagining or experiencing. Looking back it was an interesting idea. As a boy, I felt odd. Why not just a walk together? Why does everything have to be a creative project? But I was young, and did not understand these things.
He loved the City, the people of New York, the theatre; I loved nature, the rocks in Central Park, the waves of the Pacific. We never could speak more than a few minutes together without an explosion/implosion. I guess we just did not understand where the other was grounded. If a conversation was ever started, it led quickly to misunderstandings, hurts, resentments, and after, a tense distance. Both of us felt guilty, but we could not talk to each other about it. These feelings went unspoken and unresolved. Our relationship remained unreconciled as long as my father was alive.
When I was young, I did not touch a pen, paintbrush, or colors until I left home at age 16. (Interestingly and importantly, my father supported me in leaving, but I do not think he knew that I would never come back!) Then, only three days later, I started to paint! That tells something. In the shadows of such a talented, larger-than-life-father, nothing I could do was good enough. Under the weight of unspoken expectations, I had no chance. I couldn’t even begin to find out who I was; my father was just too big. On inner levels, there were and are many other connections. I did not recognize or understand this until many years after my father died in 1978, and I was already in my 50’s.
Before I left my parent’s home, I was interested in nature (the ocean) and physics. At Antioch College in the USA, I studied modern classical music and filmmaking and had a room to paint in on campus. I thought this was great, but evidently, I had not found my solution yet. I left Antioch to live in Mexico with Mazatec Indians, and later I tried making a living as a commercial fisherman. I didn't follow my father or mother as artists. I slowly realized that I am a natural scientist at heart. It took me about 10 years of lost, seemingly aimless searching collecting life experiences until I began to study physics and Earth sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. My father did not understand me – science was the most foreign thing in his world for him. But – and this is the crucial point – he supported me, even if he did not understand. That was the real father coming through.
So where is the connection here? I like to think it is in how I understand (I prefer to say “respect” – I will never really “understand" nature.) I think my mathematical intuition actually comes from my mother, who used to love to untie knots in my fishing gear. Knots and geometrical mathematical objects are actually related in a deep way. I “see” mathematics as images. Maybe understanding the world in pictures comes rom my father. I “understand” the geological history of the Alps as large slow-moving pictures. I can work with people who are autistic because somewhere I am open to their very different, world, which is often governed by images and not words. (My main job is working with adults who are on the autistic spectrum).
I had such a rebellious, anti-parental attitude that it took me over 25 years to dissolve my bitterness over my father dying without giving him and me a chance to talk things over. One night (I remember the moment, I was driving to some friends for a New Years Party on December 31, 2005), I suddenly realized that if I accept this and opened up to my father’s genes in my own blood, I could finally really grow into being a man. This was when I was already 55 years old. (Well, better late than never!) I had been slowly discovering how, in many ways both superficial and deep, I am practically identical to my father. After that, things got warm inside me, in my “man’s center”. The road to healing my relationship with my father after all these years has been a major, invigorating, life-giving experience for me. Now, I can look back, and see that he gave me the greatest gift a father can give a boy: he remained true to himself. Thanks, Dad! As a young kid, I, of course, could not understand.