Heather D. Freeman and the Intersection of Language, Image, and Motherhood

By Linnea Beyer

What if you could touch a taste or hear a color? 

This very real biological affect is called synesthesia. By definition, “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body.” Synesthesia lends itself perfectly to an artist searching for meaning in the relationship between language and the visual image. 

2010 Alumna Affiliate Artist Heather D. Freeman’s work lies at the crossroads of social anthropology and visual arts. Raised by scientists, she’s keenly intrigued by the language of science and how it delves into the intersection of myth, religion, and popular iconography. Freeman, also an Associate Professor of Digital Media at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has long believed that our culture is creating new truths out of pop culture. We’ve forged new gods for a digital society. We worship at the altar of television, video games, movies, the internet, and celebrity.

During Freeman’s art residency at McColl Center, the focus of her work shifted to incorporate her burgeoning role as a parent. “I find myself investigating old interests—science, human history, popular culture—through the lens of motherhood,” she says. 

Once again, she mused on the science of language in her work. This time, the frenetic linguistic development of her then two-year-old son, Quinn, inspired her creative process. The resulting body of work, Mamma's Boy, reinterprets her son’s linguistic worldview through the artist’s own personal interests.

Heather D. Freeman, Ow! from Mamma’s Boy, 2010, archival print on vinyl or paper, 44" x 100" (vinyl), 13" x 18" (paper)

Freeman recalls one evening in particular during this time: “Quinn and I were walking outside McColl Center one evening. The owls were out and we could hear them. Quinn said, ‘I see the Ow!’—his word for owl. But he didn’t see the owl, he heard it. It made me think that maybe children have a certain amount of synesthesia; that our senses bleed into one another when we are young but separate and solidify as we get older.”

Freeman deconstructs the elements of each piece, assembling the visual elements to create a newfound iconography. For Mamma's Boy, this involved distilling the “truths” or interests of her young son—owls and other animals, trucks and vehicles, construction equipment, football, and bugs. The nature of his obsessive interest fueled his linguistic growth, which in turn fed his obsession.

Heather D. Freeman, Semisaurus from Mamma’s Boy, 2010, archival print on vinyl or paper, 44" x 100" (vinyl), 13" x 18" (paper)

“These works are portraits of my attempt to portray my son's [verbal] Weltanschauung,” reveals Freeman. “My son’s growth constantly redefines motherhood for me, just as the changing nature of childhood re-shapes my investigations of the non-familial world.” 

Heather D. Freeman, Ship Shape from Mamma’s Boy, 2010, archival print on vinyl or paper, 44" x 100" (vinyl), 13" x 18" (paper)

Freeman has continued to catalogue her son’s linguistic and cognitive development since her McColl Center residency. She’s created several bodies of two-dimensional work that stem directly from her Mamma’s Boy series, like Talk to Me a Story, which illustrates both her son’s evolving interests and his desire to establish a verbal narrative. 

Heather D. Freeman, Fire Dinosaur from Talk to Me a Story, 2011, mixed media on paper, 8” x 10”

She’s also branched out into mobile app development, creating an interactive story about her son for tablets and phones. The resulting fable, Flederhund, is a collaboration with her husband and fellow artist, Jeff Murphy. While the two had co-created works of art before having a son, parenthood has brought new meaning and depth to their partnership.

As Heather’s son grows and matures, Heather too evolves, both as a mother and artist. The familial and artistic partnership with Jeff assures that their professional artistic pursuits are enriched by their personal family metamorphosis, and vice versa.

Linnea Beyer is a writer and a mother who's fascinated by the intersection of art and technology.