by David Lennam

From the OAK BAY STAR October 23/02

John 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 the driftwood. 
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.  

Freeman 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.

Oak 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 Lodge.
Freeman obliged, but it wasn't until last month that his pieces - which command a price of up to $3000 each - found a buyer.

Minnesota 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 Freeman.

Ten 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.

Austin said she'd call the next day to arrange to ship the piece to their home.
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.

A curious 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 success.

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 royal treatment."

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."