Remembering How to Play

freshpaint2Sometime during adolescence, in that strange and awkward limbo between childhood and adulthood, humans beings forget how to play. Yes, adults can have fun, but the definition of fun almost certainly changes. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. For Louisville-based world-class artist Julius Friedman, however, maintaining the ability to play is not only soul-sustaining but necessary for his livelihood as an artist as well.

“Whenever I work with a subject or collaborate with another artist, I ask, ‘Do you want to play?’” says Friedman. “They might require some more details. Adults don’t really remember what play is, but they always want to.”

When looking at Friedman’s work, it is easy to see that playfulness on display. There is a youthful disregard for artistic propriety. Ice cream doesn’t belong in a French horn – it will ruin the instrument. A ballerina cannot balance on an egg – she’ll smash it. The images are ultimately successful, however, because they operate in a way that relies on that childlike willingness to accept fantasy as reality that is still alive in each of us.

“When a young person looks at my work, they think, ‘This is easy. Picture of a horn. Picture of ice cream. Put them in Photoshop, and you’re done,” says Friedman with a hearty laugh. “It doesn’t occur to them that I was so bold as to actually put these things together in reality and then shoot them.”

Ice cream hornThat boldness allowed Friedman to make a name for himself as a graphic designer in the ’70s, well before the advent of Photoshop. In addition to the renown given to the aforementioned works that would later become emblematic of the Louisville Orchestra, the Louisville Ballet and other local companies, Friedman’s pieces are also well regarded and respected worldwide. Some of them have even been  included in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, so it is abundantly clear that his playfulness speaks to many.

With a career now reaching its 50th year, maintaining that playfulness and freshness is as important to Friedman as ever. “We’re at our creative peaks when we’re about 5 years old,” says Friedman. “So lately, I try to live my life like I’m 5 years old.” What Friedman means is that when working, he tries to act on creative impulses and follow them through rather than ruminate on a concept for months before acting.

“One year for Christmas, my wife gave me a project as a gift. It was to take a picture every day,” he recalls. “Merry Christmas, right?” Despite his initial misgivings, Friedman admits that he eventually became excited by the project, and he found that not only were his creative batteries recharging but his emotions were being safely channeled in unexpected ways. “I showed the pictures to a friend, and they said, ‘You seem really angry this week.’” It turns out that that week was the week of the election of a certain president of the United States who was not Friedman’s pick. “If I was angry then, and the way the world is right now, I can’t imagine what my pictures would look like now,” he adds.

Due to this artistic palate cleanser, when Friedman got the call from the Frazier History Museum to put up a 50-year retrospective exhibit, it couldn’t have come at a better time. “I initially started with just posters because that’s what I thought people would want to see.” Fortunately, Friedman changed his mind. While a multitude of posters from his earlier days will be on display, the Frazier exhibit will also feature some of Friedman’s newer work across different media such as a walkable installation of 3D art revolving around the theme of water, and a display of his three-year project called “The Book,” which includes ornately fashioned sculptures created from older books. He’s even working on a cinematic piece that will be added to the exhibit in July.

“My goal is to create something and have someone really see it. So often nowadays, people go out, get something to eat, go to an art show and get on their phone the entire time. When asked, they can’t bring to mind a single piece,” asserts Friedman. It is Friedman’s hope that when someone attends one of his shows, they are present and, more importantly, they remember to play. VT

“Julius Friedman: Fifty Year Retrospective” opens June 24 and runs through October 9 at the Frazier History Museum at 829 W. Main St. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. from Monday to Saturday and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday. The exhibit is free with admission to the museum. For more information, please call 502.753.5663 or visit fraziermuseum.org/juliusfriedman.