“The lifeblood of a culture is how it pursues its art.”

Thea Grigsby and Lorma FreestoneLorma Freestone grew up outside New York City before attending Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. There, she pursued art, communications, and theater, which prepared her well for professional pursuits in fiber art scupture, graphic design, illustration, and banner creation. She joined the staff of the Holland Area Arts Council, a nonprofit supporting the arts in the community, in 2003 as exhibitions coordinator, and in 2006 became executive director, the position from which she retired in 2018. She's happily devoting her newly available time in her studio, where she makes three-dimensional collages. Lorma is standing in the photo at left, with Thea Grigsby, her collaborator for "Gelukkig 90 Jaar" (Happy 90 Years), an assemblage honoring Holland's Tulip Time Festival. You can see more of Lorma's work at her website, Lormasart.com.  

Barb: My guest today has lived in the same community as I have for a long time but unfortunately, we’ve really never had an opportunity to get acquainted. So I’m happy to have with me today Lorma Freestone, who has been the Executive Director of the Holland Area Arts Council, an organization she joined about 15 years ago. She just recently retired, and has been re-immersing herself in her own creative pursuits. Welcome, Lorma!

Lorma: Well, thanks, Barb. Good to be here!

Barb: Yes, and as I do the intro and realize I’ve been in my silo of doing non-art work over many decades and sadly, it has not brought me into your—not that I haven’t been at your Arts Council—but it’s certainly not been an area that I’ve spent a lot of time, so I’m eager to hear about you and what you’re discovering at this stage of your life, and what you’ve brought to our community over the years. You’ve spent, really it sounds like you’ve spent all of your adult life in the arts.

To be able to do what you love as a career is always such a gift.

Lorma: Pretty much, yeah, I have. I’ve been pretty fortunate that I have been able to do that throughout my life. A lot of circumstances came together to allow me to actually be creative and make money at it over the years, and that was really a gift, because to be able to do what you love as a career is always such a gift. I never take it for granted.

Barb: Were your parents artists, or how was the concept of art as a career?

Lorma: My immediate family has been, was, and still is the seminal influence in my ability to do art. My mother was a musician, and she went to Syracuse University and became a music teacher. My father, although his professional life was always in computers—he worked for a New York telephone company—but he was very much involved with pursuing art and worked with his hands a lot. He was kind of an inventor; he was a photographer; he just loved the arts. And because we lived in such close proximity to New York City, they were always taking us downtown to see shows, to go to museums, to just taking in as many of those cultural activities that we could.

Then when my brother—my brother and I were three years apart; he was three years older than me—he really was an incredible creative man. Even as a boy, he was always kind of pushing me towards the cultural side. I remember one time, one birthday, I really wanted the album Meet the Beatles, and he bought it for me, but he also bought me Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. He said I couldn’t listen to Meet the Beatles until I’d listened to Prokofiev [laughs]. So he pushed me and nudged me in the directions that he enjoyed, and I really followed along behind him.

He went to Hope College and as well, so did I. I followed behind him, which I did a lot. He was in the theater, and I got very much involved with the theater department at Hope College as well. So we’ve always been interested in theater and the arts.

When my husband and I met, he also was very much involved with music and, from that moment on when we got together we sort of shared a path of creativity together throughout our lives. It’s been that way all along. My children are both in the arts now, so it’s kind of a continuum that I’m really proud of for our family.

Barb: Yeah, that’s fabulous. And what an interesting story about your brother and his influence in your life. That’s remarkable! Take me through how you found yourself involved with the Arts Council.

Lorma: When we first moved back to Holland in the 80s, we became involved with the Arts Council as volunteers. David Marty was the director at that time, and we became really really close friends with David and his family. But we also just did lot of fun events. We helped out with fundraisers, we helped out with exhibits, and there were a lot of things that our family became involved with when our children were young.

So we sort of grew with the Arts Council, and it was always part of our awareness in the community. We always knew that in order to have a really strong community, we wanted to be supportive of the arts in the community. At that time in the 80s, there was not a really—other than the Holland Friends of Art and one gallery—I think Black River Gallery—that was it in Holland. The Arts Council was the main visual arts attraction, and also they had classes. They had dance classes as well and music classes. So at that time, being involved with the arts meant being involved with the Arts Council.

As I said, it was always there in the background as part of our routine, and then later when my kids went to college and started building their lives I just looked at the paper one day, and I saw an ad for a posting for a job as an exhibits coordinator. It was a part-time job, and I thought, “You know I’ve been doing other things—I had my own business—but I really loved the idea of maybe working for the Arts Council.” Jason Kalajainen was the director at the time, and he hired me!

I had been doing assemblage art at the time and I thought, “Well, making all these exhibits is kind of like making a big assemblage every few months. And so it was really just a perfect fit. I loved, loved, loved that job! It was just—my ability to get out in the community and meet with artists and line up exhibits and build really interesting things for the public to come and see—it was a spark that I never even knew that I wanted to do, but boy once I was in it, I was really excited about it.

That’s my introduction into the Arts Council as a profession. Then after a few years being there, there was an opportunity. Jason left, and there was an interim director. The Board approached me about whether I’d be willing to be the director. I’d never done anything like that before, and I thought it was a really great opportunity, but I felt like I had a lot of connections. Another really important part of it was that my husband, Ken, was willing to sort of go in alongside me, because I’d never been the director of an organization before, and he had. He was the Executive Director of Macatawa Greenway. So with that experience, the Board agreed to hire him as well as kind of a facilities manager, and they got a “two-fer” with he and I. It gave me the confidence to just step in and be able to take on that leadership role knowing that I had a really fabulous Board behind me, and that Ken was going to be alongside me too, to just sort of get me started in that role. And I ended up being there for 12 years as the director.

Barb: Wow! What kind of impact do you see art having in the community like this?

The lifeblood of a culture is how it pursues its art.Lorma: Well like I said before, a community that embraces the arts, as far as I’m concerned, there is no life to a community unless they have a strong arts component to the community. I believe that this town has always known that. It’s been really my experience—even before I became involved with the Arts Council when I was at Hope—I remember that the community was really very supportive of the arts programming that Hope gave out to the community, and I think that the lifeblood of a culture is how it pursues its art. When a community embraces the arts the way Holland and Zeeland and this areaGrand Rapids does, it really has an impact on everyone who lives there—even if they aren’t directly involved with the arts. Because it just raises the bar, it raises the level of cultural attractions and opportunities for everyone.

What we produce as a community in the arts is going to have a lasting legacy.So I think the arts are incredibly important. They always will be. Actually when you think back, it’s what you remember about a culture—the things that ancient cultures left behind, the things that we learn about them are primarily through what they produce as art. So I think all the arts—music, the visual arts, performance art, and letters are just what you remember about a culture. I think what we produce as a community, and what we encourage and support as a community in the arts is going to have a lasting legacy.

Barb: What’s your understanding of arts in education right now? Are they making room for art to be introduced in classrooms?

Being active in the arts makes you more creative, makes you a better problem-solver.Lorma: I believe they are trying. I know that there’s always a struggle—a financial struggle—and I think there are some unfortunate trends in education right now that are focussing a little bit too much on certain areas where people will expect there will be jobs opening. I think we’re looking at that expectation through old eyes, and I believe very strongly in the arts-centered education, cultural-centered education. And I think we are missing the boat if we do not teach our children to be creative. And the arts don’t necessarily—I don’t mean that we have to center our children’s education on drawing, painting, any particular type of art—I think being active in the arts makes your brain do different things, and makes you learn differently. Makes you more creative, makes you a better problem solver, and so I believe that in our community right now there’s a very strong arts program and arts emphasis. We’ve got really great—all throughout our community—we’ve got great theater programs, we’ve got dance programs, we’ve got fabulous visual arts programs. The Arts Council hosts the debut high school art competition every year—and we have been for over 34 years. It’s wonderful to see that strength in our students. However, I think we are at a very difficult time, in a crossroads. If we don’t support a really wonderfully robust and well-rounded education for our students and stop testing all the time, we’re going to lose out. And I think that creative culture, the creative powerhouse that we could be raising up right now to go into business in later years will be missed.

Barb: Yeah, and I assume we’re not unique in that, that all communities are looking at those same concerns.

Lorma: Right, and when you look at the political atmosphere right now, the climate, there’s kind of a bit of a war going on between those two sides. And I think that there are aspects of both sides that are valid, but I think our children are going to lose out and, ultimately, our culture will lose out if we don’t come to some agreement that makes sense.

Barb: I’m compelled by your comment about understanding culture through art because I think about the travels I’ve done over the years, and recalling places of visit in the past. And it is: it’s the visual art piece of it that does sort of characterize a place. I guess I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but it is intriguing to recognize the power.

Culturally based education can bring people together throughout the world.Lorma: And the power also of being able to learn about different cultures through their art, and travel. Get out there in the world and know other people, and have them not be separated by being the other, but we learn how our commonalities bring us together. I think in a loftier aspect of looking at it—cultures getting together and sharing their art and sharing what they have to offer culturally—brings us closer together and brings the world closer together. So I think a culturally-based education is primary to not even just success of a community or a country, but to really bring people together throughout the world.

Barb: So, you’ve made a big transition recently which I alluded to earlier, retiring from your role leading the Arts Council. Can you share what you are finding most challenging and maybe more surprising?

Lorma Freestone studioLorma: [laughs] Well it’s funny because before I retired—I made the decision actually three years before I retired, so the the organization would have lots of time to prepare and we could make a really good transition—but I have to admit that I was a little concerned about whether or not that “turning off the tap” kind of—walking away from the Arts Council and closing that door I guess is a better way to say it. I was a little worried that I would get on the other side of the door and say, “Okay, now what?” But because I had that three-year launching pad that I knew what I wanted to do—my husband built me a beautiful studio in the backyard, so I have my own space to create—I really took no time at all. Once I left the Arts Council, I walked into my studio and started making art.

Now starting to make art after 12 years of not making art—I really didn’t have time, and I’m not somebody who can really immerse myself in two different worlds at the same time, so I was really pretty immersed in my administration duties at the Arts Council so having time to make art was just not something that I was able to do. I admire people who can do that. They can leave their work at work and come home and just do their art work, but I just wasn’t one of those people.

So once I got home and into my studio, I really had to start all over again. It was like if you sat down and you hadn’t played the violin for 12 years and you just started playing again. It’s a little rusty. So I gave myself kind of an assignment to make collage sketches every day for a month, and just get myself back into laying things out, and building perspective, and building—doing all the rudimentary things that you really have to do when you’re creating art work.

Lorma Freestone studio interiorSo that was great because I was able to take that time to do that. Now I feel like I’ve hit my stride, and I’m back into it and I’m creating again. But that first struggle getting into my studio and sitting down and saying, “Hmm, now what do I do?” and just kind of twiddling my thumbs trying to figure out where I was going to get my inspiration from [laughs]. That’s pretty much done. I’ve got a lot of ideas now—almost too many to really execute—but that was the first thing. And then I did a challenge because all those years of being at the Arts Council, we were working with Tulip Time doing the Tulip Time Art and Bloom Competition, the poster competition. And I had this idea in the back of my head, oh for the last four years, and I knew that I couldn’t enter because being part of the organization that was sponsoring the competition, I couldn’t do it.

Gelukkig 90 Jar (Happy 90 Years) assemblage by Lorma Freestone and Thea Grigsby

So as soon as I was out of the Arts Council, my friend and I, Thea Grigsby, decided that we would collaborate on a poster submission. We created a three-dimensional assemblage for the Tulip Time poster competition, and we submitted, and we got into the top 20! So that was really exciting and it was really fun to work with Thea, who’s a really dear friend and also a fellow artist that has very similar sensibilities to my own. We are collaborating now on an exhibition that is going to be at the Arts Council next year. That was really exciting, and now Thea’s and my piece is part of that top 20 competition for the Tulip Time poster!

Barb: Well, that’s great! Congratulations!

Lorma: Thanks! [laughs] We kind of… we didn’t break any rules, but we went way outside the box, if you want to use a pun, because it was made out of an old microscope box. But nobody had ever done a three-dimensional piece before, and nobody had ever submitted as a team before, so I kind of apologize in advance... and say I’m sorry we sort of broke—not broke a bunch of rules—but we probably are bending things a little bit [laughs]. But we did get it, so it was fun.

Barb: Are you finding yourself doing the same art or similar art to the art you stepped away from 12 or 15 years ago when you became executive director?

Lorma: Well you know, I am to a degree. I think because I’m taking this year to really move forward and get my feet under me again, and I think just moving back into that comfort of making assemblages is probably where I’m going, just for the year. But I’m doing different types of assemblages than I did before, trying to push myself to do it differently. I’m staying with assemblage because [laughs] I have so much material here for it. That’s kind of what I built my studio to do. I’m not going to limit myself, I just think that right now that’s what I have to work at because that’s going to help me get my stride. So yeah, I’m still working on assemblage. I’m not a painter, and I do illustration, and I hope to do more illustration over the next several years.

In the near future what I’d like to start doing is helping people with their strategic planning by doing illustrations. I did it a little bit at the Arts Council; I would illustrate the entire year in review so that people could at a glance see what the accomplishments were. We did it for our strategic planning sessions, and it was really effective. Instead of boring lists on a piece of paper with bullet points, it was just much more exciting to see it kind of cartoony and a little bit more pleasurable to look at—to look at a year in review. So I’m hoping to start doing that. That’s one idea, and the other thing I want to do—I graduated from Hope College with a Communications degree, and I was in broadcasting a little bit—so I’m hoping to do voice-overs. That’s one of the things that I’ve always wanted to do, and I think I’m going to try and pursue that. Beyond the visual arts, I’m going to try to do a little bit of that too.

Barb: Interesting. In my day-to-day encounters with women, they are often looking at transitions, and whether it’s transition with children leaving home, moving out, or anticipating retirement and what’s that going to look like, and how is my life going to take shape in maybe a little different form. And I think—I’ll use myself as an example—sort of entrenched in a… I won’t say a non-creative career, but certainly not including the arts. How do you help individuals maybe discover some ability or interests if up to that point in their life really haven't had that?

Lorma: That’s a really interesting question, and I think you can’t force yourself to do something that you don’t really like. There are so many opportunities out there for people who want to dabble in the arts, or take up a hobby, take up some sort of part-time thing that they can do. There are lots and lots of opportunities out there, and my goodness with Pinterest and YouTube you can learn all sorts of things without stepping outside your home.

A community helps you stick with it; you have the accountability of other members.But I believe that the best way to do it is to become part of a community. There are groups of people who do things together, and I think the accountability is really important. So if you’re meeting with people, even if it’s like a book club, or if it’s a writing club or if you are meeting with other people who might be interested in knitting, or coming up with quilting, or a choir or some sort of musical group, or some sort of theatrical group—the group in that community that you get involved with helps you pursue it and stick with it because you have the accountability of the other members. And you are also creating a group of people that you can talk with, you can problem-solve with, you can just become socially active with.

I think that’s the key to finding something that you can do in your retirement or in your transitional time. I just believe that the human connection is incredibly important. And it’s funny because I say that even though for me, making art is a very personal, private thing for me. I can’t necessarily go and make art with a group of people. It’s difficult for me to not get distracted. But I can take a part of my art with me to a group and work on a small thing. And even though I’m not doing “my art” at this group—like at the Art Council, there’s a group that meets every Wednesday—and even if I’m not doing the big project that I’m working on, if I take something along to just play with and commune with these other people, I learn so much from them, and it’s an opportunity.

You will not be an expert when you start.I don’t know; that’s a long-winded answer to a question, but I really urge people to become involved with a group of people that are doing something that you are interested in. And the other thing is, you will not be an expert at it when you start. If you are starting something entirely new [laughs], you know, that instant gratification is really a tough thing to overcome that you’re not going to get that instant gratification. I always use the example of playing the piano. If you think that somebody is going to play a [Franz] Liszt piece the first time they sit down at the piano, obviously that’s not going to happen. So you have to start and practice. That’s part of being in a group you can practice together and you can do this solitary stuff as well, but you do have to practice. You can’t do it perfectly the very first time you try [laughs].

Barb: Yeah, that makes sense. No, that’s great advice. As we wrap up our time together, I like to ask as a final question: Where do you find richness at this stage of your life? And maybe partly you have shared that, but if there’s anything else you can add, we’d appreciate that.

Lorma: Oh gosh! Well, I am so fortunate because I have a marvelous family. We live—my mother and my husband and I live together. My mom is 93 and she is really healthy and really interested in all kinds of things, so it’s really wonderful for us to be together as a family. We try to do things together; find things and events to go to, and interesting things to pursue. Again, I’ll say my husband is just an amazing man and has always supported me from building me a studio to really encouraging me when I get distracted or discouraged. He’s always right beside me. My kids are fabulous. I really love the fact that my grandchildren are really creative as well and both my kids and their spouses have made the arts central to their lives as well. We do a lot of traveling together as a family.

I haven’t actually decided where I’m going to put my volunteer time yet; I’m giving myself a little bit of time to do that, but I know I’ll become part of a community again. I’m serving on the committee for the Tulip Time—they’re doing a Klompen Garden this year as part of the Tulip Time Festival—and it’s asking artists to paint these huge wooden shoes, and they’re going to be all over town. So I agreed to be part of that and help get the word out about that.

I’m always going to be part of the arts community. I just find richness in living in this beautiful part of the country and having this great community of people that I’ve come to love here in West Michigan, and I think there are opportunities abounding, and I can’t wait to see what I get involved with next.

Barb: Well that’s great! It sounds like a great stage of life to look forward and dream about what might be coming your way. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for what you have provided for our community. We can only hope that other communities have individuals who are as passionate and committed to improving the quality of live for all of us as a result of the work you’ve done. So thank you.

Lorma: Well, thank you, Barb.

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