Cameron Art Museum’s “Structure in Space and Time—Photography by Phil Freelon” is a passion project the staff and others curated with the architect himself before his passing last July. A graduate of NC State and MIT, Freelon is most well-known for his work designing famed structures, like the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Center for Civil & Human Rights and the Museum of the African Diaspora. Freelon also was a photographer who documented his structures and their inspirations.
“Our trustee, Bill Malloy, was a colleague of Phil’s years ago and helped us with an introduction to him,” CAM executive director Anne Brennan tells.
At first Freelon’s hesitancy to do the exhibition was expected. He was suffering from a three-year battle with ALS, and, aside from having to take careful care of his health, was preparing a redesign of Freedom Park, east of the North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh. Still, Freelon agreed and became excited for the opportunity, according to Brennan. “He had never had a museum exhibition of his photography.” With the help of Ben Alper, Freelon selected digital files and even the paper they would be printed on for the exhibit. Alper did all the matting and printing with the help of Durham’s Craven Allen Gallery’s donation of services. The group effort found success in the opening of Freelon’s solo exhibition on October 19, 2019.
“I believe he knew he would not be alive when the exhibition opened to the public,” Brennan admits. “The entire exhibition was built on love, relationships and fervent belief in Phil.” Seventeen photos have been on view and were slated to close April 26. However, due to the museum’s closing because of COVID-19, staff members Nan Pope and Bob Unchester have turned Freelon’s work into a virtual exhibit, slated to run through June 20.
We interviewed Brennan about Freelon’s photography and how viewers can best sharpen their eye to appreciate the exhibit.
encore (e): What fascinates you most about Freelon’s work?
Anne Brennan (AB): Personally, these images offer a world into his mind and heart. Talking with Phil about his photography, he unequivocally valued the personal journey he took with a camera and discoveries he made with it as a serious artistic endeavor. It was not an avocation for him. It seriously informed all of his work as an artist and architect. The intimacy of the images holds me. I welcome discovering and imagining what held him.
For example, “Holden Beach in Snow.” One might think, Why black and white when he could have used color? What’s so interesting about an old car hood covered in snow, parked underneath a beach cottage on stilts? If you quieten your mind and heart and remember how important structure and light was to him, a world of wonder opens. And think how very quiet and still those moments were for him. Think of the quality of sound around him and how it changes in snow. And a blanket of snow simplifies and heighten form. The diagonals, the structure, the long cast of shadows begins to play. We can see the shadows more clearly due to the snow, and enjoy the geometry, humility and solitary nature of it all.
Several works bear an exquisite solitude: “Single Skull: Florence” and “Havana Stadium,” with the solitary figure seated in the stands of this abandoned stadium. He incisively brings us to that very moment with him.
e: Freelon was known for his attention to designing spaces that welcome diversity and inclusiveness. Talk us through some photographs indicative of this mission.
AB: Phil decided early in his architectural career he would only design buildings that enhanced the beauty, health and quality of community. Schools, libraries, museums, public sector buildings that often we have grown to expect to be spare and soulless, Phil wanted them to be beautiful spaces.
He was so proud of the Durham County Human Services Complex, which welcomes light and its high ceilings cause our spirits to soar. Every person’s spirit. He believed hard-core service buildings, and all the people who need and use them, deserve good design.
Philip served as architect of record for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture (SMAAHC). Of all his crowning achievements, this is the work he will be known for most. He brought over the finish line in 2016 this project, first pitched to the U.S. government in 1915 by men who served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the American Civil War. This exhibition brings to light three photographs Phil took, representing aspects of this structure and project: “Parallel Monuments,” “Untitled Inside the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture” and “Deep Roots.”
I especially love “Deep Roots.” Here Phil is photographing and capturing what none of us will ever see: the foundation being dug for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. He loved excavation, evidence of decay, wear and history. Think of the metaphor that the foundation of this important museum, finally being realized in our nation, meant for him.
e: His work also is complementary between design and the natural world; explain how this is visible to viewers.
AB: Study “Structure in Bloom” and then look at his photographs “Parallel Monuments” and “Untitled: Inside the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture”—they offer direct clues about his design process influenced by nature.
His student and colleague, Michael Stevenson, shares how Phil “loved to put holes in his designs so that when light came through his buildings, they would create art, in and of themselves, too.” Look at the delicate yet strong lacey matrix of the coral being held up to the clear sky in “Structure in Bloom” (most probably the hand holding it is his wife’s Nneena’s hand), and then enjoy the light-attracting corona he chose for the Smithsonian.
e: What programs, if any, do you have planned around this exhibit?
AB: We will feature Facebook posts telling stories about individual works, which hopefully lead participants back to the virtual exhibition. We dream of engaging some of his former students, colleagues and friends to share stories, which will increase all our knowledge about this great man, this great artist who continues to contribute to this world through his architecture, his photography and his memorable words. . . . He would be so pleased if a viewer was able to discover something new about himself or herself, their place and their work in the world.
CAM also posted the exhibit, “Stories in Print – Prints from the Permanent Collection,” as a virtual series.
Structure in Space and Time—Photography by Phil Freelon
Virtual exhibit from Cameron Art Museum
Free • On display through June 30