Lee B. Freeman's brief career has been fraught with peril. As a teenage graffiti artist in New York City, he survived scrapes with the law and pummeling from "concerned citizens," as he politely calls his assailants. In high school and now in college, at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he has weathered criticism from classmates and others. Harsh feedback in the name of art is OK with him.
This week, when a passerby spat on Freeman to protest his latest project - a series of gold spray-painted fences that closed off the parks encircling Mount Vernon Place - he remained unfazed. Everyone has a right to an opinion, Freeman says, though he wishes this particular observer had "expressed himself more productively."
But the young artist said he was reduced to tears on Thursday when, pressured by instructors, city officials and a legion of livid dog-walkers, he finally unlocked his golden cages, re-opening the park, where the Washington Monument stands, to the public a week ahead of time. He did this in the spirit of compromise. But he felt his work, part of an exhibit intended to focus attention on Mount Vernon Place, suffered, and that hurt more than the toughest critique.
"I cried because I don't know if I fought as hard as I could," said Freeman, who erected the gilded fence last weekend after obtaining the proper paperwork. "I fought so hard to get there, and then everything was taken away. I cried because I questioned myself. Did I give up? Did I give up on my project?"
First, a portrait of the artist as a 22-year-old MICA student: On Thursday Freeman wore a paint-dappled turquoise sweat shirt and a plaid fedora with a half-smoked cigarette stuck in its brim. He clutched a book of Robert Barry's conceptual art to his chest, along with his own sketchbook, which contained mysterious scribbled phrases ("the pursuit of freedom is inconvenient"). His fingernails were grubby, his wrist braceleted by rubber bands, his hazel eyes huge and searching. His voice was hoarse from all the spray-paint he's inhaled of late, and the endless "conversations" he's been having.
"Your project sucks!" someone screamed out the window of a car as Freeman sat in the park, watching his golden fence wobble in the wind. Such encounters count as conversation these days. So do irate phone calls (Freeman posted his contact information on his creation), scathing blog posts and bags of dog droppings tethered to the fence.
Freeman, a senior majoring in interdisciplinary sculpture, is willing to consider almost all of these gestures as art in themselves. Yet he was admittedly hoping for a more balanced dialogue when he conceived his piece, which is part of a public art exhibit called Beyond the Compass, Beyond the Square. Sponsored by the Walters Art Museum in connection with its show, Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, and MICA, the Mount Vernon Place exhibit will be on view in the park until May.
Though Freeman's fence would only stand for two weeks of that time, he hoped to raise questions about "the temporary nature of space," he said, and "to celebrate" the historic park by holding it hostage around the start of spring.
"I wanted to help people see something beautiful," he explained.
For several semesters he advanced his vision, persuading his professors and preparing the necessary municipal paperwork (though some city officials later spoke out against the project, it was initially approved by the Department of Transportation, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation).
Freeman also had what must have been some unique discussions with a representative from Long Fence, the company that supplied the 7-foot-tall chain-link barrier that Freeman chose for his primary material.
In preparation, Freeman spent days and nights in the park, "re-imagining and re-seeing" its individual quadrants: the northern part, he noticed, is the emptiest, the western section teems with promenading dogs and their owners (who would soon become some of his most rabid critics), and the east quadrant is full of homeless people, one of whom he slept beside one night, he said.
"I didn't realize he was there until morning," Freeman said. The park kept surprising him, and he couldn't wait to show the city what he'd learned, not realizing that some residents would deeply resent the inconvenience, and what they saw as a hint of youthful condescension.
Freeman said he and his friends spent 16-hour days painting and assembling 3,000 feet of fence. He ran up credit card debt for supplies, and (naturally, having chosen Mount Vernon as his gallery) received reams of parking tickets. On March 16, everything was set to go.
But then the responses began rolling onto his Web site, www.goldchainlinkfence.com.
"What an arrogant jerk, stealing access to a public place," one guest wrote.
"Next time, why don't they put a gold fence around the Maryland Institute?" commented another.
Matters did not improve on Thursday, when Freeman's teachers strongly encouraged him to free the park by removing sections of the fence, which made the whole structure unstable in a strong wind. Toppled sections knocked a chunk of marble off a carved staircase and threatened passing cars and pedestrians, so Freeman had to re-chain the fence overnight for safety's sake. Portions were opened again on Friday.
His trials have "made me never want to do public art again," said Dana Solano, a senior interactive media major "interested in psycho-geography" who is involved in another part of the Mount Vernon art project.
Other young artists have been inspired by Freeman's grace under fire - and falling fences.
"In youth-speak, I'd say he's a pretty chill guy," said 20-year-old Jonathan Taube, another sculpture major. "Young artists are important, because they're not set in their ways. This conversation should be about the fence as a metaphor." (Taube's contribution to the show involves collecting street debris in a hollow structure, then growing sunflowers in it - "bio-remediation," he explained.)
In the end, the controversy could help Freeman mature as an artist, said Jonathan Borofsky, creator of the much-criticized Male/Female sculpture at Pennsylvania Station and no stranger to hate mail.
"It could scar him for life, but if he was asking for trouble, he was probably ready for it," Borofsky said. "He's out there, talking to everybody. That takes a strength. Weakness is people who stay in the studio," hiding from critics.
Freeman certainly hasn't given up on his project. He is, in fact, re-seeing it: Documenting the fence's fate has become artwork, too. As various segments flopped over late last week, he paused to snap pictures before charging into rush-hour traffic to make repairs.
"I really hope to continue the conversation!" he called over his shoulder. It wasn't clear if he meant The Conversation, or an interrupted interview.
"He's very serious about his artwork," said Jack Freeman, Lee Freeman's father, who studied architecture at Cooper Union, and who used to construct cardboard castles with his young son. Freeman's mother, a graphic designer, also attended the New York school; she taught Lee to paint with watercolors.
Lee's parents know that the controversy has shaken him, but "he has an inner core of toughness" in addition to a creative soul, Jack Freeman said.
"It took him a while to make the decision to seriously pursue this kind of work," Freeman's father continued. "Hopefully he won't go become an accountant now."
Name: Lee Benjamin Freeman
From: New York City
School: MICA, Senior
Quote: "The project will be in flux until it comes down. That's what's interesting about working in public."
Artistic Influences: Robert Barry, Christo (creator of The Gates in Central Park), Lawrence Weiner, Robert Smithson, and working for Julian Schnabel in New York City
Favorite Color: Clear