I was scribbling in my notepad when a man sporting a red cap and a denim jacket burst through the doors. “All right, I’m ready,” he said to Celene Ryan, the Director of Artist Development for Arts Unbound, an organization that showcases the work of self-taught artists. Brad Friedman, the man with the red cap, has been showing his work at Arts Unbound since 2008 when he sold his first two paintings “The Atlantic City” and “The Las Vegas.” Like all of his work, the paintings captured a story and were like little snapshots into his mind.
I rose to greet Friedman as he walked towards the first table in his path and began unwrapping 12 acrylic paintings. The paintings, all executed on 8” x 10” canvases, are playful – in fact, they all focus on well-known cartoon characters or figures that look like cartoons. They’re depicted with thick brush strokes and bright colors. “Dreamward” is Friedman’s interpretation of Mount Rushmore, featuring the heads of iconic 20th century characters Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone, Mickey Mouse and Tony the Tiger. He was inspired to paint it after boarding a cruise ship by that name a few years ago. “Starlight,” on the other hand, portrays angry villains sitting on bowling balls with their weapons raised. Since cartoon villains always lose and are rarely in the starring role, Friedman decided to create a piece just for them. “This is their time,” he explains.
Although the figures in Friedman’s work appear childlike, they often reference adult objects or themes. He can take an object like a mug full of beer and make it look as innocent as a flower by writing the name of the beer in chunky letters. Or he’ll make objects like a smoking pipe look playful, for instance, by accentuating its curves and making it look flexible. A lot of his paintings also have “some sort of duality where they’re telling some type of story,” said Lori Friedman, Brad’s sister. Meaning, the objects he draws might have an obvious simpler meaning, but they often represent something deeper for Brad. He could draw something like a bottle of ketchup, and while it may appear to be a mere condiment, “what you’re seeing is a full representation of several events that happened in his life,” she said.
We were about to make our way to the back of the gallery, near a fluffy couch that was decorated with stuffed animal pillows, when Ryan walked over to the table.
“Brad, these are great.”
“Thank you,” he replied.
“I’m going to make a list okay?”
“Please do. You start with Brad Friedman Artist,” he said.
Brad eagerly walked to her end of to the table, and began pointing and listing the names of each painting he had created without missing a beat. “Yellow Copter and Sub, Green Sculpture Tree, On Beer frame—On Beer Town, I mean.”
“On Beer Town?” Ryan asked to clarify.
“Yes,” he said before announcing the remaining names.
This seems to be the moment Friedaman had been looking forward to all day. On the bottom right corner of the table was a multicolored painting of several smaller paintings on a black background; it was a collage. Some of the highlights were images that consisted of a fish, a used pallet, and a leaf. A self-portrait of Brad smiling with bright colors outlining the shape of his body sat directly in the middle. “I sometimes like to put myself in the paintings,” he said. “It’s just for fun.”
The “Green Sculpture Tree” is another example of Brad placing himself in his work. In that piece, he shows up in the form of a tree sculpture trimming another tree. In addition to the self-portrait, the entire piece is filled with scene setting objects a like a few garden tools scattered on the grass and mountains standing tall in the background. Three objects that are sure to catch a few eyes are ladders behind the tree sculpture of Brad that spell “ART.” They are so strategically placed and camouflaged that it’s easy to overlook them as plain ladders. Brad is known for hiding things in plain sight like that, as well as having hidden meanings in his work. “What I really love is that what he’s now giving us is really a vision into the world as he sees it,” said Lori Friedman. “There are connections that I do not see and, honestly, sometimes I don’t even understand but it’s a view that I would never have gotten if he wasn’t painting it.”
Friedman, a 51-year-old man who is on the autism spectrum, has been producing art from the moment he picked up a pencil, according to his father, Herb Friedman. “He drew constantly,” Herb added. Friedman has accumulated so many drawings and paintings over the years that the walls of the family home are covered with them. He took private lessons in high school with his art teacher, Tanya Virgilio, who introduced him to airbrush painting and charcoal drawing, though his preferred medium is oil paint. Friedman also likes to create personalized birthday cards, which he sends to friends and family.
While Friedman says that he appreciates his talent to produce art the way that he does, he isn’t concerned with how a piece is going to look or how much money it will sell for. He prefers to let his work develop organically as his brush strokes fill the canvas. He just wants to have fun, though he does get bored with drawing every now and then. “I am very grateful that I love to paint, but then I found out even, even more difficult about these things,” he said, expressing that while he loves paint he finds it difficult to do at times. “After a while it gets boring and I cannot repeat it again,” he added. And during those rare moments he’ll stop painting for as long as he needs to, but he always comes back to it.