A new art center in Friendship honors a visionary painter. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A new art center in Friendship honors a visionary painter. 

From the disco-ball façade to the pennies glued to its front doors and the enigmatic name, everyone seems to have questions about the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination. The fractured-mirror mosaic and the wall of multi-colored bottles have been intriguing residents for months.

Co-founder Sheila Ali says that the Friendship building's neighbors have rightly bombarded the artists working on the interior with their queries. "People are constantly knocking on our window," says Ali. The questions will be answered when the gallery and education space opens Fri., Oct. 9.

Irma Freeman was born in 1904, in Germany, to an Orthodox Jewish family with a lineage of rabbi/cantors. Emigrating after World War I, she eventually settled in Shadyside to marry and raise a family. She began painting when she was in her 70s, and continued until her death in 1994. Displaying her work in area venues, she inspired a following of younger artists with her vibrant depictions of idyllic outdoor settings far removed from her own impoverished existence. 

Freeman was also Ali's grandmother.

"I remember growing up, the house was just full of paintings. She painted constantly, especially after my grandfather died. That's what kept her alive," says Ali, 45, herself an artist, educator and longtime fixture in the local art community.

The gallery will showcase a rotating exhibit of Freeman's work in cycles corresponding to motifs that Ali and co-founder Brett Boye will choose for semi-annual shows. Teaming with community groups, the Center will also continue the art classes for local at-risk youth that it began over the summer.

Along with musicians, and catering by nearby Spak Brothers Pizza, the opening gala will unveil Art of Salvation, a display of salvage-art works reflecting the artists' ideas of spiritual salvation. The artists' challenge is connecting the two -- as Ali puts it, "how to save the planet by reusing items."

The building itself is a testament to this idea, as the vast majority of building materials consist of treasures retrieved from Dumpsters and other reused materials, including the the twin glass museum doors in the entranceway, purchased at Construction Junction. The structure is also environmentally friendly, with soybean-based foam insulation and in-floor radiant heating. Boye, who has worked extensively in renewable energy projects, notes plans for solar electricity and water heating, and eventually a green roof.

Merging art with environmentalism is one of Ali's primary concerns, a mission she also attributes to Freeman.

She considers her late grandmother a visionary: Her landscapes that take viewers to a fantastical utopia are echoed in the Center itself, which seeks to create beauty in the often gloomy East End by building a shimmering structure out of other people's garbage. 

"I see her spirit, her vision of what could be, as sort of the driving, creative force to nurture the ideas generated behind green energy," Ali says. "So it's sort of a different twist because most businesses are either green energy or they're art. We've kind of merged them together. It's almost like a place of invention, like anything can happen. We can do anything here."


Irma Freeman Center for Imagination Grand opening: 6 p.m. Fri., Oct. 9. 5006 Penn Ave., Friendship. Free. 412-418-6208 or www.irmaFreeman.com



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