Irma Freeman was born in 1903, in Germany. She died in 1994, in Pittsburgh, having established a name locally as a self-taught artist.
Her memory has been kept alive primarily by her granddaughter, Sheila Ali, who storehouses some 500 of Freeman’s paintings and drawings and in 2009 founded the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, an arts center in Friendship, in her honor.
But there’s a new addition to Freeman’s legacy – one Ali wasn’t expecting.
Back in May, Ali got an email from Donna Palermo, of Bloomfield. One rainy day, something caught Palermo’s eye by the trash pick-up of her apartment building. It was a stack of works on paper, some labeled on their backs with names and addresses – including one on nearby Ellsworth Avenue. The handwriting on the labels precisely matched that of Palermo’s aunt. She brought the papers in to dry. The names, she said, were Irma Freeman and Ruth Freeman.
“It took me about an hour to decide what to do,” says Palermo. “I thought, ‘No, I can’t throw them out.’”
She started Googling.
Ali, who lives in neighboring Shadyside, made it over to look at the art in July. She brought along her brother, Robbie Ali, and Ruth Freeman, who is her aunt and Irma Freeman’s daughter. Approximately 50 works were stacked on Palermo’s kitchen table, and there was a faint musty smell in the room as the family sifted through them.
Most of the works turned out to be Ruth Freeman’s. The Peabody High School graduate, now 78, studied art at Carnegie Tech, the precursor to Carnegie Mellon University. Her earliest piece here was an award-winning 1957 landscape including the old East Liberty Sears department store that she did as a teenager. She later taught art in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and did freelance artwork and page design for area publications; long retired, she now has a sideline in selling her artwork on eBay and Etsy as Mono Ruth Art House (some of her work also ended up onscreen on Louis C.K.’s old TV show Louie.)
Ruth Freeman’s career was entwined at times with that of her mother, who in the late ’50s and early ’60s sometimes sat in on Ruth’s art classes at Carnegie Tech. Irma Freeman had a life-long love of drawing and painting. Sheila Ali says that when she was growing up, in the 1960s and ’70s, her family bonded over art. “We all drew and sketched around as a family, with my grandmother, with each other, or wherever we went,” she says
Irma Freeman was married to Louis Freeman; the couple had three children and never had much money. She didn’t really get going with her art – mostly colorful landscapes and still lifes -- until she turned 70. And it was only after she turned 80 that she started showing her work publicly, at venues including the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and sometimes in “mother-daughter” shows with Ruth, at local galleries.
In the early ’90s, Ali helped Irma Freeman’s work reach a new generation of artists and art lovers by arranging shows at now-vanished venues like Garfield Artworks and Wilkinsburg’s Turmoil Room. And she’s continued showing it occasionally at the Irma Freeman Center, a gallery and educational space.
“When I think about the way she was in her 90s, she painted from morning till night,” says Ali. “She was one of the most inspired people I’ve ever met. And she was inspiring.”
Freeman’s work isn’t much known outside Pittsburgh, but she has her fans.
“When you see an Irma Freeman, you’ll say, that’s her style,” says Pat McArdle, a Pittsburgh-based collector who specializes in work by artists who are self-taught and work outside the commercial gallery scene – so-called “outsider artists.” “When you see the figurative work and these colorations that she uses, it’s unique to her.”
At Donna Palermo’s apartment, Ruth Freeman seems pleased to be reunited with works of hers from decades ago. “Some things are nice to see, the old projects,” she says. She is unsure how they all ended up in a building she never lived in. (Reached by phone, the landlord, Julio Pampena, says the art was in the basement when he purchased the building at a tax sale, in 1997; he said the art was thrown out by accident. Ali thinks it’s likely that her aunt left the papers behind when she vacated her old apartment on Ellsworth in the 1980s, and that an old roommate then took it to the Bloomfield address.)
At Palermo’s apartment, the search for Irma Freeman’s work takes about 10 minutes. “Wait a second, this looks like an Irma Freeman,” says Sheila Ali, spotting a colorful pastel portrait of a seated young woman.
“Yes, that’s hers,” says Ruth Freeman. “That’s definitely hers.”
“There’s her signature and a date, 1964,” says Robbie Ali.
There are five signed Freemans in all, including a couple of nude sketches, and another work that’s probably hers, says Ali.
“Thank you for making the effort to rescue this obscure art and track down the owners,” Ali told Palermo.
“I just had to return it,” said Palermo. “I felt it needed to go back to the owners.”
At this week’s Unblurred gallery crawl on Penn Avenue, the Irma Freeman Center will open “Impressions and Found Work,” a show of Freeman’s art including several of the rediscovered works. The show also features paintings by local artist Laura Rossner.
Freeman’s paintings are not for sale, says Ali, but she is selling unframed high-resolution prints of some of her works.
“Impressions and Found Work” opens with a reception Friday -- a week before what would have been Irma Freeman’s 115th birthday.