Ashley Freeby explores family and history in Hyde Park Art Center show

One of Ashley Freeby’s quilts on display in “Plots & Hems” at the Hyde Park Art Center. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

After debuting with the 2018 “Ground Floor” biennial of emerging artists, Ashley Freeby, returns to the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) with a new solo show exploring family, one of the themes that define her work.

“A lot of the women in my family were quilt-makers, and my dad was a farmer,” she explained. “I’m trying to hone in on those two skills.”

Freeby based the show on a quilt her grandmother made and four garden plots, which she manifested in earth-tone quilts hanging in an HPAC gallery. She described the art on display as minimalist and uncolored, all based on one-by-one squares: an attempt to bring together he two traditions.

She grew up in the small town of Tipton, Pennsylvania — a heavily Mennonite area near Altoona — which she said instilled within her an appreciation for growing and making.

“My dad grew up in the South, relocated to New York and somehow wound up in (Pennsylvania). My parents weren’t married,” she said. “I grew up mostly with my mom, who’s White, and it was an interesting experience. A lot of people thought I was adopted.

“I think working with the earth and talking about gardens is trying to reconnect me to traditions I’m trying to hold onto from my dad’s side of the family and bridging them into what I’ve learned from my mom’s side of the family — trying to create this connection between both of them, since there wasn’t ever really that physical connection.”

She does not limit her mediums: “It all depends on what concept or what message I’m trying to send.”

Freeby’s work also addresses trauma, using techniques akin to those employed at the new National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, where jars of soil from lynching sites across the country are displayed.

“I’m really thinking about the memorialization of the victims thinking more about site and location,” she said. “Most recently, I’ve been doing soil research and making these little earth segments — using soil, dirt and stone to make these little bricks that are representative of the actual location.”

The bricks are typically alive — they have grass in them — and Freeby gives metaphorical new life to the victims with them.

“The making process is pretty spiritual for myself,” she said. ”Working with these matters makes me think some kind of way about it. I think it also ends up being very repetitive, so there’s some kind of ritual in all the making, especially in this show, there’s a lot of squares, so I’ve repetitively cut squares out of fabric.”

Freeby admits that her work can come across as oblique, with its simple, broken-down forms. She does not portray Black bodies in her art. And she has come to terms with not getting through to every viewer.

“My practice isn’t for everyone, and if they don’t take the time to get to where they need with the work, then that’s their loss,” she said. “I make work because I enjoy it. I enjoy making, and I enjoy telling stories — and I like to do that through visuals.”

Nevertheless, Freeby has incorporated some writing into “Plots & Hems” — every one of the eight pieces up has a title, though some have a longer subtitle — a first for her.

“I still get a little bit nervous in sharing my writing, because that’s kind of the one creative thing that’s still for myself. I feel like I’m slowly losing all those creative outlets to make a practice,” she said. “I’m trying to be careful about how much I use it.”

When she first started out, Freeby only made art for herself. “Now ‘making’ has become ‘making to show,’” she said. “I wouldn’t say I lost the joy of it, because I still do enjoy making, but it feels less about for me to work through something.”

“It just gets to the point where it’s the same thing over and over again. It’s the same information; it’s the same kind of case,” she said. “And it gets to the point where I don’t want to read about it. I don’t want to think about it.”

While an undergraduate at Bucknell University, one of her professors was flying biweekly to Ferguson, Missouri, to teach another class. Freeby said his conversations and interviews with people there in the aftermath of the 2014 Michael Brown killing have been a huge part of her practice.

“I think what it’s doing is bringing awareness. It’s not bringing change — that’s how I feel about my practice,” Freeby said. “I think the only way that change can come about is to change policy, and I’m not a policy-changer. I’ve been looking at this as a way of telling the story, rather than trying to make change through my work.”

“Plots & Hem” opens on Sept. 15 and runs through Nov. 24.