WOOD INTO GOLD: Marvels-ous
by David Lennam
From the OAK BAY STAR October
Freeman lets little voices guide him. As an artist who
works in found' blocks of wood (some of which barely fit inside
his Transit Road garage-cum-studio), Freeman is 'called' by
Great chunks of wood that have been carved by the wind and the waves
tell him to take them home and make them into art.
Now the voices are telling him to take that art south and put it in
the homes of famous people.
has hit pay dirt with his ever-expanding collection of wood
art he calls "JOHN'S MARVELS", thanks to the benevolence
of an American multi-millionaire who can't get enough of the
large, natural sculptures.
Freeman can spend 400 hours working on one piece of driftwood into smooth-as-butter
perfection, applying layers of oil to enhance the rugged beauty of it's
natural shape. He's been at it for the past 12 years, just waiting
to be 'discovered'.
Now it appears the patience born of seemingly endless sanding and rubbing
has paid off.
Bay Marina owner Bob Wright picked up a story the Oak Bay News
ran on Freeman two years ago, called up the artist and offered
to display some of JOHN'S MARVELS at his tony fishing resorts: April
Point Lodge on Quadra Island and Campbell River¹s Painter's
Freeman obliged, but it wasn't until last month that his pieces - which
command a price of up to $3000 each - found a buyer.
hearing aid king Bill Austin stopped at April Point for a visit.
He and his wife Tani were on an Alaskan cruise but, wanting
to visit some old friends on Quadra Island, he had the cruise
ship stop so he could take a float plane over to the island.
Austin is the 60 year old American philanthropist who founded Starkey
Laboratories, the world¹s largest supplier of custom hearing aids. He
regularly gives away millions of dollars' worth of hearing aids to children
all over the world. Austin ended up lunching at April Point, where
he fell in love with Freeman¹s unique wood sculptures.
Freeman remembers getting the call from the April Point staff, telling
him there was a rich American who was crazy about his art. "They
told me that he¹s very enthusiastic and promised he'd be in touch,
but they didn't know his name," said Freeman, admitting that his
excitement was tempered by a typical artist's sense of reality.
"A lot of people say a lot of things. I actually expect nothing," said
days later, he got a phone call from Austin¹s wife, who
told him they wanted to buy a large piece called Grounded Woman. She
told Freeman they had sat right beside it at lunch and they
both fell in love with it.
That¹s when the fun really began.
said she'd call the next day to arrange to ship the piece to
The next day, she called back and said that she and Bill not only wanted
Grounded Woman, but also another pieced entitled The Knot Totem to give
as a gift. Again, Austin said she'd call the next day about shipping.
The next day there was another call and yet another piece was sold. This
time, Hole in One was added on the list and shipping details would be
arranged the following day.
On the fourth day, Bill Austin called to ask what was involved in shipping
the pieces. Freeman explained the four hour drive to Campbell River,
then back to Victoria, the wrapping, the crating etc.
Then Austin hit him with the bomb.
He said, "If you¹re going up to get my three pieces, why not
get them all?" Freeman recalled.
Freeman asked Austin who he was giving the sculptures to.
He replied, "My dear friends Norman Schwarzkopf and Arnold Palmer."
As a sideline to running his company and fitting presidents such as Ronald
Reagan and Hollywood celebrities with hearing aids, Austin runs the Starkey
Hearing Foundation. Last year, he donated $35 million worth of
hearing aids to poor children. Each year, he invites heads of state
and other celebrities to a gala evening to celebrate the foundation¹s
Freeman and his wife Maureen received an invitation to this year's Aug.
25 bash at the Hilton in Minneapolis. Their names were added to
a list of guests that included: General Norman Schwarzkopf, Reverend
Billy Graham, Apollo astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin, Miss America 1995
Heather Whitestone McCallum, Mickey Rooney, Pat Boone, Kaye Ballard,
Leslie Nielsen, Ernest Borgnine, Jane Russell, Donald O'Connor, Lorna
Luft, The Osmond Family, Whitney Herzog, Buddy Ebsen and Paul Anka.
Freeman loaded up his van with sculptures and drove south, Austin even
used his clout to 'clear' Freeman through US Customs without so much
as a sniff. It was red carpet treatment all the way.
"I was just so honoured," recalled Freeman. "I wasn't
enamoured or star-struck; I was just so honoured."
Prior to the gala, the Freemans were guests at the Austin's mansion,
where Austin confided that his love of wood came from a job as a teenager
in a lumber mill.
"He was just great," said Freeman of Austin. "He's
very eccentric, but the coolest guy I've ever met. We just got the
John¹s Marvels were the hit of the gala. He ended up selling
all 10 large pieces and a dozen smaller ones. Then, in an altruistic
move of his own, Freeman decided to donate a percentage of the money
earned to Austin's foundation.
Before the evening was over, Austin made a suggestion that Freeman's
art could be in big demand soon.
"Austin told me, 'I have thousands of friends in this world I like
to give gifts to - and I like to give wood.' I don't know where that's
going, but he invited me back to the gala next year. He said 'I want
you and your family and your wood at my next dinner."
The experience has changed Freeman. He's now formed his own charitable
organization in Victoria - JOHN'S MARVELS FOUNDATION ART.
"Now when you buy a piece of my art, I¹m going to donate a percentage
of the proceeds to a foundation of your choice or mine."
He's also hoping that local patrons will get hip to his creations.
"As Bill and Tani said to me, 'Is everyone blind up there?' You
know, it's one thing to get 'oohs' and 'aaahs' - it's another thing to
make money at it."