The World of David Freda

All things bright and beautiful. All creatures great and small …Mrs. C. F. Alexander 1823-95

One function of art is to challenge the status quo-to persuade, shock, or seduce us into seeing the world, and perhaps our own attitudes and beliefs, differently. David Freda, a San Clemente, California, metal artist and enamelist makes art out of things many of us would like to step on or avoid because we consider them strange, frightening, nasty, or squirmy.

Study on Northern Black Rat Snake Necklace – 1984-2000
Fine silver, enamel
9 1/2 x 7 x 1 ”
Photo: Robert Butcher

“I like the challenge to take repulsive things and make them beautiful,” he said. “When someone saps l “jewels” to me, I think of frogs and snakes. I scant people to see what I see.” And what he wants people to see is the beauty of the natural world in action, the story of its mating, hatching, feeding, and fighting that is mostly off our radar screens.

There is no doubt that Freda is succeeding brilliantly. In 2002 he won Rio Grande ‘s Saul Bell Design Award for a necklace in fine silver and enamel showing the life cycle of a stag beetle-the adult insect, grubs, and juicy raspberries, its favorite food. His work is also exhibited widely and can be seen on the bodies of some wealthy collectors. Most of his work is neckpieces and brooches, but he occasionally does larger NN work, such as wall sculptures and conference tables. Insects, snakes, and amphibians show up regularly in his designs-but he also likes fish, leaves, and unusual plants. He is in increasing demand as a teacher and speaker on the. subjects at which he excels: enameling, mold making, and casting, particularly hollow core casting.

A classic example of his work is his “signature neckpiece” of hatching Northern black rat snakes, a piece that is so popular it is his only limited production item. He got the idea when he found black rat snake egg cases on an outdoor trip, and made the prototype with actual specimens. They did not hold up well, so his next version was cast in sterling, depleted, and enameled a luminescent white The third time, he cast the whole thing in fine Biker, the snackelets in authentic wiggles, enameled each component, and ingeniously cold connected everything. The “yeech” factor did not hurt sales. A current client of Freda’s who bought the necklace admitted to being afraid of snakes.

Technically, the piece is interesting because it is hollow core cast in a technique Freda has perfected after years of experimentation with mold making, different casting waxes, the best wax injecting technique, and the best method of pinning to stabilize the investment within the wax form. It is also enameled to perfection. Unlike many enamelists who work flat, or use color to create design, Freda always works sculpturally, using color to replicate nature and add another dimension to the work. He does not revel in decoration for its own sake, but uses it to make a point, usually one of botanical emphasis or accuracy, as when making tiny enamel eyes, correct for the species in question. Since enameled pieces are difficult to solder, he has by necessity become a master of cold connections, using tiny screws and rivets (here, to attach the snakes to the eggs), either fabricating them from scratch, or enhancing manufactured products with 24k gold heads.

Artistically, the piece is harmoniously designed and well balanced. Freda has improved on nature, turning a writhing mass of snakelets, reminiscent of Medusa having a bad hair day, into a pleasing and intriguing neckpiece. Like many artists, he has a persistent and creative sense of play, and while he usually starts work with a finished design in mind, he will spend as long as necessary to arrange the components to his liking.

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But why snakes? To begin to understand Freda’s interest in the natural world, you have to turn back the clock to 1963, when local newspaper reporters in his Wisconsin hometown did a small feature on the nine-yea-old boy they tagged as a naturalist in training. Neighbors, said the paper, “are accustomed to seeing the little blond fellow tramping the field with his homemade butterfly net.” He was fortunate in having parents who encouraged his interest in bugs, birds, and butterflies, besides the bumblebees, three turtles, and dog at home.

As he grew a little older, Freda flirted with bee keeping, collected insects and reptiles, and joined a group of naturalists to band bald eagles. During one memorable field trip, he climbed a tree in pursuit of an eagle’s nest, fell 90 feet onto his back, then climbed up again to hold and band the fledglings. “It taught me to confront my own fears,” he recalls, “and later to deal with people I didn’t like. Handling the birds was cool!

While other kids were partying and going to proms, I was banding hawks. That was my good tine.” Later, he became a falconer, and learned to fly the birds he bad been observing and handling. He also started spending time at the Milwaukee Natural History Museum , both to study their specimens and to start learning the craft of taxidermy, taking correspondence courses and practicing on road kill. Still energetic and restless, he became scuba certified, diving the cool Wisconsin lakes to watch beavers dam-building. He also got interested in tropical fish.

Tropical Orchid (brooch), 2003
Fine silver, 24K, 18K, 14K yellow gold, enamel, pearl
3 1/4 x 2 1/2 x 1 1/2 ”
Photo: Ralph Gabriner

Had he been better at academic subjects, Freda would probably have earned a Ph.D. in biology and gone on to be a naturalist and teacher. However, life, and his own skills, diverted him from this path. Prom an early age he showed talent as an artist, making drawings and watercolors of birds and selling them to teachers and friends. His study of taxidermy also produced income from hunters and animal lovers who wanted their kill or pets preserved for posterity. More importantly, he learned the structure and musculature of animals from the inside out. At the same time he gained valuable technical skills by working a couple of summers as a machinist alongside his father, who made nose tips for Apollo 13 and parts for Jacques Cousteau’s vessel. By the time Freda enrolled in art school (the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater) sculpture classes were a snap. He was also able to use his profitable hobbies to help finance his BFA.

Shooting Stars (brooch), 2003
Fine silver, 24K, 18K, 14K yellow gold, enamel, pearl
4 x 3 1/2 x 2 ”
Photo: Ralph Gabriner

In college, Freda quickly switched from fine arts to metalwork. His early interest was piqued by the desire to make his own bells for his hawks instead of using Pakistani imports. I le started in earnest doing chasing and repousse with Marcia Lewis, studying later with Kelly Morris, whose lavishly illustrated thesis on Albert Paley became a major influence on his student work. After receiving his degree in 1979, he moved to Colorado to climb, ski, and work on the Rio Grande railroad. He then spent a year as artist-in-residence at the Oregon School of Arts & Crafts, teaching, doing his oven work, and then learning colors and patinas from Philip Baldwin. Gradually his work moved away from what he called his “Paley phase,” and he began including more color, and creating designs directly influenced by his interest in nature.

The Fish Hunter (brooch), 2002
Fine and sterling silver, 24k, 18k, 14k yellow gold, enamel
6 x 3 1/2 x 1 1/2″
Photo: Barry Blau

Graduate school beckoned, and Freda spent three Years at the State University of New York at New Paltz, studying with Bob Evendorf and Kurt Matzdorf. It was not a good fit, despite the company of fellow students John Cogswell, Charles Lewton-Brain, and Lisa Gralnick. Ironically, Freda was unhappy doing enameling and casting, two techniques in which he was later to excel. He also got bogged down writing his thesis “Integrating the Art of Taxidermy with Metalsmithing Techniques”-and he left without graduating. The experience left him disappointed and with the determination to prove himself. It was a burr under his saddle that would last a lifetime.

For the next 12 or so years, he worked as a jeweler. He met Barbara Rockefeller (a member of the celebrated family, who also had her own jewelry company), who fell in love with and bought. a great deal of his work, starting with the first hatching snake neckpiece. Through her, Freda was gradually introduced to big collectors and art dealers in New York , where he lived for a while, supplementing his income by foraging for wild mushrooms and trading them to fancy restaurants for meals. But the money started coming in, including a few big commissions. “Selling work for a lot of money is like climbing a mountain,” he recalled. “It’s an adrenaline high. It’s also a privilege when people purchase your work–it helps keep your creativity flowing”

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However, boredom set in 1992, when he took time out from jewelry making to pursue a long-time interest: he began breeding reptiles and started living in the Wildlife Discovery Center in New York , a new museum for living reptiles. For the next five years he worked as the curator, and honed his skills designing some 80 living exhibits of snakes, poison arrow frogs, and other animals. He also did mold making at the museum, and made plaster, then section molds for dioramas, and experimented with different casting methods.

Study of Carnivorous Pitcher Plant (sculpture), 2001
24k and 18k yellow gold, fine silver brass, copper, enamel
7 x 7 x 7″
Photo: Barry Blau

A turning point came after he saw a Lalique exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Museum . He vowed: “I am going to get into this at a hard core level! I am going to pick up where Lalique left off!” He resumed jewelry making, starting with his signature necklaces, then snapping turtles (hatching), stag beetles hatching and fighting, an octopus grabbing a crab claw, frogs and fish. Each piece told its own distinct story. Each also came with a shadow box for elegant display when not being worn, in part because he disliked the idea of it being hidden away in a jewelry case.

Freda continued his technical experiments in hollow core casting and enameling. He was finally able to solve the problems inherent in enameling on aluminum, notably its propensity to melt and crack off its glass coating, a challenge which had bugged him since his undergraduate days. He worked on different enameling techniques, including grisaille, cloisonné and champlevé. He perfected his own style of enameling on fine silver, spurred on and encouraged by the work of John Paul Miller and William Harper. He went to endless lengths to get precisely the right color, even venturing into Death Valley to re-photograph pupfish for a commissioned piece.

Towards the end of the century, his life changed again, as he moved to San Clemente to live and work with Patricia McAleer, an expert in metal corrugation. Here he has ample space for his casting equipment, a foundry, and a large, light studio overlooking the ocean, Catalina Island , and opposite, Camp Pendleton.

Where will Freda’s work go next? It is becoming more abstract, combining a favorite example of wild life with geometric shapes and occasional jewels such as pearls. It is also becoming more surreal. When Mobilia Gallery invited artists in 2002 to submit work based on a favorite painting, he created a “fish hunter” brooch in the style of Hieronymus Bosch an amazingly whimsical piece portraying a brilliantly colored fish, arrayed with sword and saddle, boating home with a net full of tiny blue fiddlers each no more than one quarter inch long. The effect is simultaneously powerful, funny, and creepy.

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At the back of his mind there is still the L-word: Lalique. One way he may succeed the master is with flowers. Freda’s current passion is orchids. After careful observation, each flower is mentally deconstructed into 10 or more components. The petals arc cast separately, the “whiskers” fabricated, then run through a rolling mill. Each piece is enameled with 200 grit Ninomiya (or old Thompson) leaded colors, in a very small kiln with carefully controlled heat. Not surprisingly, Freda breaks some of the purist rules of application. He does not wash the enamels-this does not appear to hurt their clarity-and often uses them without flux. Instead of making them adhere with Klyr-Fyr or gum tragacanth, he makes his own sticky compound with Klyr-Fyr, lilyroot powder, and spit. Holding each tiny piece with a wire suspender, he sifts on a coat of enamel, propping the wire and piece into a wire trivet, and firing it for about one minute at 1400-1450 degrees F. Each coat is carefully checked for color against the living flower. After the third coat he usually sands the piece and corrects the fit, repeating up to nine to ten firings to get the precise color.

The final coat is flash-fired at about 1500 degrees to even out the color. Final touches may include tiny yellow lumps for the center of the orchid, or gold granules, first given a tiny divot, and slightly wet-packed. After working on five prototypes at once, he has settled on three different types of orchid, to be turned into brooches, each mounted in a shadow box. Already collectors are beginning to snap them up.

Mr. Natural (brooch), 2002
Fine silver, 24k, 18k, and 14k yellow gold, pearls, enamel
2 x 1 1/2 x 1″
Photo: Robert Sanders

Between teaching and speaking assignments, he has also tried his hand as a curator, with the well attended 2003 exhibition “Extreme Metal. Contemporary Metalsmiths,” at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, FL. He continues to do major shows, still goes mountain biking every day, and under his design bench, Freda the naturalist once again keeps a nest of stag beetle grubs, feuding, hatching, and sooner or later, mating and

By Jennifer Cross Gans [Metalsmith Magazine - Fall 2003]
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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