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‘Missing’ Artist Alive and Well in Maryland

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Van Freeman, the Los Angeles shoe repairman whose rustic artwork and mysterious disappearance in late August sent ripples of admiration, curiosity and concern well beyond his Silver Lake neighborhood, is safe and singing in Maryland.

Freeman, evicted from a bungalow on Reservoir Street, left behind a one-bedroom home decorated with religious mosaics, a wall tiled with pennies and ceilings scrawled with Bible quotations. When he called several friends in Los Angeles Wednesday from his parents’ home in Baltimore, they told him that neighbors had not only protected the work he left behind, but also brought newspaper and television cameras to the house.

“I can’t believe the way God has orchestrated this whole thing. This shouldn’t even be going on,” said Freeman in a phone interview on Thursday. “This is unheard of.”

His next step?

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“I’m kind of still figuring that one out. I live right across the street from a huge park, and it’s wonderful to be able to walk through it and sing. I just got hired today to be a baritone soloist in a choir here in Baltimore.”

However, a brief return to Los Angeles is possible: Freeman and his longtime pastor in Los Angeles, the Rev. Juanda Green, of the New Visions Christian Fellowship Church, are considering plans for him to visit late this month to see the house and sort out the fate of the artwork with landlord Dick Padron. Padron, noting the back rent still owed by Freeman, had said he believed he was entitled to proceeds from the art. But Freeman and Padron spoke on Thursday, and both said they think they can come to a compromise.

“He’s the nicest landlord in the world,” said Freeman. “Even though he’s evicted me, I have nothing bad to say about him at all. He’s a wonderful guy. As delinquent as I’ve been, and as irresponsible as I’ve been, he’s just sweated me once or twice.”

Freeman’s alterations to the house, which have been compared by admiring neighbors and artists to the “outsider” assemblage art of the Watts Towers, might have remained an untold story but for the activism of neighbors.

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Marilyn Downey, who has never met Freeman, moved onto the Reservoir Street block with her family soon after his eviction. After she and other neighbors saw the Bible-inspired mosaics and other works of tile, glass, rocks and wood that Freeman left behind--and the “For Rent” sign that Padron had placed in front--Downey enlisted the neighborhood in cleaning up and covered this month’s rent on the modest building.

“I can’t believe what she’s done,” Freeman said. “The energy and the time and the money and the love.”

With Freeman’s approval, Downey plans to show the house (2911 Reservoir St.) and art to visitors from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays through Dec. 3 and perhaps through the month.

Among the roughly 30 visitors who turned up to admire the Reservoir Street house Wednesday was Green, Freeman’s pastor for a decade. Green, who presides on Friday evenings at the New Visions church in a rental space on Century Boulevard, said she has half a dozen Freeman originals at home.

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“When he first start doing the work, he was trying to raise money to save his house,” said Green. “And we encouraged him, because I really think he’s gifted.” When Freeman’s rent-raising campaign fell short, she said, “he was devastated. He just got in his car and left everything. He had wanted to turn his place into an art studio. So to know that it’s happened without him being there--it’s amazing.”

Freeman, who is over 30 but declined to give his age, said he had lived in Los Angeles for about 10 years, repairing shoes, taking occasional acting jobs and pursuing various other art- and church-related projects. He lived on Reservoir Street for about three years, but over six months leading up to his eviction, landlord Padron said, Freeman fell nearly $4,000 behind on his rent and provoked complaints over late-night gospel music, shouting and singing.

On Thursday, Freeman described his burst of creativity and the hasty departure that followed.

Many of the home alterations were long in progress, he said, but this year’s productivity began as a campaign to raise rent money. It also landed him on TV as a contestant on “The Price Is Right,” Freeman said, but he won a barbecue grill instead of cash.

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So, Freeman said, “all I did all day is make artwork and praise God and dance all day long. That’s why my neighbors complained. But that was a good time. That was the best time, to be able to do your art and praise God all day. That’s living to me.”

His pastor takes a more measured view of those weeks. Freeman, she said, “was in the worst way. He didn’t have any money, he didn’t have food to eat.”

When it was time to go, Freeman said, he set out across the country in a 1995 Ford Taurus “that the detectives are probably looking for now because I’m so far behind in car payments.” He took along three artworks, “pieces that aren’t dear to me at all. I don’t know why I have them.” From Oklahoma, he called some friends. In Virginia, Freeman said, a policeman stopped him and waived him on despite a missing license plate and paperwork, saying, “Mr. Freeman, just go home.”

In the month since he’s arrived in the East, Freeman said, he’s been feeling much calmer. When life settles down a little more, he added, “I really want to continue my education, and continue my art, and get my degree in theological studies, and follow my calling.”

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