A Visit with Freda Coffing Tschumy
Driving down the verdant cul-de-sac tucked away in Coconut Grove is the house that artist Freda Coffing Tschumy has called home for 51 years. The road is resplendent with energy, abundance and nature preparing one for entering the world that is part residence, part studio and 100 percent creativity. Before one’s finger even presses the doorbell, words and concepts leap to mind - lush, organic, botanical – and then the Freda opens the door with a welcoming smile and a “don’t mind the dog” greeting. One is invited into a structure that is filled with beauty, most created or collected by the artist herself.
“I was single and needed a place to live and work. Property at that time in Coconut Grove was not expensive, so I decided to build what I needed, and an A-frame was perfect, ” says the artist. A few years later she married her husband, an architect. A few years after that, with a son on the way, they expanded the house to accommodate a family and add more studio space.
“Marriage between an artist and an architect is good,” says Freda. “We enjoy the same things and are good travel companions.” A trip to Japan in 2001 on a tour organized for artists and architects included visits to artist studios, traditional restaurants and concerts where musicians played traditional Japanese instruments. Freda recounts to her visitors how the energy, the traditions, the calm that she found in Japan inspired her. A favorite site was a Zen garden, designed in such a way that you could hear the falling water and feel its spray while thinking that it was a work of nature, then discovering that there was no water, there had never been a stream there. It was the perfectly felt work of a landscape architect.
“This garden made me think again about how we respond to nature. We stand in awe and humility before mountains & canyons. They make us feel part of something vast. Each is the record of energy passing through and shaping matter which connects us to the universe. And, of course, every expenditure of energy leaves a track; everything we do or don’t do somehow goes into the making of our world and our history.”
Following the artist into her kitchen, which reminds the visitor of a covered bridge of wooden beams, one can see her hand and her bronze work everywhere. The backsplash, which she created in puzzle pieces rather than rectilinear blocks, echoes the coloration and natural patterns of the granite counter top.
Humor and functionality are apparent in what she calls “finger pulls.” They are bronze casts that Freda made of her own fingers which serve as the pulls on the kitchen cabinets – brilliant and intriguing to the touch. Describing the process of creating the sensuous backsplash in a nearly nonchalant manner -- as if everyone could think of this or execute it, “I wet a board, leveled it, poured wax on it, and dropped some water here and there. The wax leaves a track and a flow so you can make patterns that are compatible with the granite, which is from Brazil. It was a river bed, and one can still see how the flow of water arranged the rocks and created a signature pattern.
The professorial side of the artist is ever present as she guides the visitor through her home, her process and her artwork. The care and attention with which she explains the artwork is finely tuned, mindful not to provide minutiae but savvy enough to convey the depth and breadth of her passion and commitment to exploring her art. Freda uses the ancient technique of lost wax for casting bronze. It requires exacting steps: the creation of a pattern in wax, the addition of sprues (wax rods) to create passages for the bronze and air, the investing of the wax in a solid mold made of plaster and silica sand, the melting of the wax in a kiln to create a negative space to receive the molten bronze. After the bronze cools, she breaks away the plaster/sand investment, cuts the sprues, restores the surfaces with grinders, sanders, polishers, etc., and treats the surfaces with patina chemicals to add color and protect them from oxidation.
Whew! But, this knowledge is crucial to understanding the complexity, the attention to detail and the experimentation with this classic art form that sets Freda Coffing Tschumy’s work apart.
Entering her studio, one spies a piece so full of movement that it draws the viewer to it. Cascade, which is a highlight of Strong Paintings: Works by Freda Coffing Tschumy at the Bakehouse Art Complex, flows with energy and shimmies down the wall culminating on the floor in a graceful yet powerful stream.
It is clear as one moves around Freda’s studio and home that organic shapes and forms are the artist’s focus. “When I started casting bronze and working with hot wax, the leaks from the molds into the water created patterns resembling sea shells and suggested others kinds of shapes to explore: flow patterns, branching patterns, spirals, tornadoes, water spouts and galaxies. These coincident shapes show that we are all part of one big thing: this is thrilling to me.”
Freda considers the laws of physics as she works, looking to capture movement in every creation. “Trying to see the shape, the very detail of a wave as it is coming ashore is fascinating to me. “ To capture this effect she plunges a bowl of molten wax into cold water and sweeps it to the side to capture waves in the mold. The wax cools and sets so quickly that it works almost like a stop action photo.
Dark Matter is another bronze series that bursts with movement even before the artist picked it up to demonstrate the movement through space that she envisioned during creation.
Early classes in chemistry created a love for the subject, later realized in her use of patinas that are “all chemistry.” Freda treats the visitor to an explanation of patinas, how bronzes are waxed or sealed to protect them from oxidizing, and how she adds color to patinas by adding different chemicals. When asked , she explains that patinas can only be removed by sandblasting because the color is chemically bonded to the bronze.
“What I love about sculpture is that even though there’s no physical movement of the work, the physicality, the energy, the motion is evident. The sensation of movement is the test for me of whether a work is good or not,” states Freda.
The bronze sculptures in Freda’s garden seem completely at home. Meditation Garden is a work on a 20-foot x 20-foot plot that calls to the viewer to come contemplate. Stones cast in concrete by the artist create a spiral, and beginning at the outside, a man’s head with a visible aura rising from it seems to be moving toward the center. Each segment of the spiral has a version of the head and aura, but each one sinks lower and lower until, at the center of the spiral, only the aura is visible.
The artist, when asked, says that she has mediated for many, many years and finds this practice, “wonderful, peaceful, renewing and a very important thing to do.”
Born in Danville, Illinois, in 1939, Freda moved to Miami as a child with her family and attended school in Coral Gables. She graduated from Vassar College in 1961 with a BA in English and minors in art history and religion. She also took studio sculpture classes in stone carving.
After graduation, she moved to New York City and attended the Art Students’ League where she studied painting with Joseph Hirsch and anatomy and drawing with Robert Beverly Hale.
In 1963, she moved to Rome, Italy, where she studied painting and drawing at the Accademia di Belli Arti. She received her MFA in Sculpture, specifically bronze casting, in 1990 from the University of Miami under the guidance of William Ward.
She began her teaching career as an art instructor at the Miami Fine Arts Conservatory in 1968 followed by ceramics instructor at The Grove House and sculpture instructor at The Upstairs and Continuuum Galleries in Miami Beach. She taught stone carving at the Metropolitan Museum School in Coral Gables and also at The Bass Museum School on Miami Beach. She entered the MFA program at the University of Miami in 1988 and received both tuition remission and a TA, graduating in 1990.
In 1991, Freda became the Foundry Director at the University of Miami where she helped start Art After Dark and taught bronze casting in that program. With the artists who began casting in Art After Dark, she started The Foundry Guild. She was asked in 2004 to help start the foundry at ArtSouth in Homestead. In 2008, she joined the Foundry at Miami Dade College/Kendall as an adjunct professor, and although retired from teaching, is still affiliated with MDC
Freda has had scores of solo exhibitions in the decades from 1974 to the present including Women Singular at the Deering Estate, a 20-year retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum and Art Center in Coral Gables and at prestigious museums and art galleries including The Parthenon (Nashville, TN), Anderson Fine Art Center (Indiana), Saginaw Art Museum (Michigan), Amherst College Music Center, Jaffe Baer, Heim America, and The Gallery at The Mayfair.
Her work has been collected by many, including the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, FIU Wolfsonian Museum, Vassar College, Count and Countess Fernando Pecci-Blunt, Taffy Gould and the Canadian Postal Museum.
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September 6, 2016