Artist Deco cuts up for her craft

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by JOHN RICE

Many of us learned to make collages in kindergarten, then left the art formâ€"along with our white paste and curved scissorsâ€"behind. But River Forest artist Bernadette Freeman has continued to create provocative pieces from scraps of paper. Deco, as Freeman is professionally known (her brother couldn't pronounce Bernadette, and the name stuck) has a collage on display as part of the "Landscapes & Mindscapes" exhibit at the Art House.

The collage, "Under the Influence," works on many levels. From a distance, it shows Earth with Mars hovering above it. Closer inspection reveals written messages imprinted into the images. Some are warlike sentiments and others are prayers for peace.

According to Deco, it was inspired by a celestial event that happened a few years ago, when Mars made its closest approach to Earth in 6,000 years.

The Mars event coincided with our invasion of Iraq. The point, she says, is that Earth was under the influence of the "pagan god of war" when the decision was made to take up arms.

Deco's interest in collage was rekindled when she was a student at Madonna High School. "In high school I got interested in art. I could feel my brain making connections as I made portraits in pen and ink," she recalls.

But just drawing human figures didn't satisfy. She created her first collage to commemorate Beatle John Lennon's wedding day, capturing his appearance while using news clippings and photos she found of the wedding. As usual, the collage contained her "secret messages and subliminal thoughts."

Deco explains that collages have been around since prehistoric times. "Collages are common to humanity. They have been done with mosaics and feathers; sailors made them from seashells."

At the same time, collages using printed matter constitute the only "new art form of the 20th century," she says, noting that modern artists like Picasso and Miro created collages.

After high school, Deco attended Rosary College (now Dominican University) where she obtained her degree in English. "I wanted to be a novel writer," she says. "I won awards for poetry and short stories but I've never submitted any for publication."

She memorably displayed her love of literature at a "Bloomsday" celebration at Molly Malone's. Wearing a red dress, she declaimed the passionate speech that ends James Joyce's Ulysses. Her performance received a rousing ovation and she commemorated the event by writing the speech on her shirt.

After graduation, Deco got a job with a management consulting company that worked with the E.P.A. to remediate hazardous waste. A "solid waste hunter," she scanned documents to "identify polluted sites on properties," she says. "It was an interesting job but not what I wanted to do."

She left work to become a stay-at-home mom to Rachel, now 16, and Rebecca, 14. But as the kids got older, she "realized I wanted to do art again," she recalls.

The cutting edge

In 1995, Deco started constructing collages of extraterrestrial landscapes. Within two weeks, her work was on display at a science fiction show.

She began getting positive feedback and awards for her collages, joined the West Suburban Artist Guild and began selling pieces and receiving commissions.

An admirer of her Lennon portrait requested a collage of actor Errol Flynn. Deco used newspapers from 1939 to form the black and white background. She placed Flynn in the foreground, "swashbuckling, drenched and bursting with color," she recalls.

Like many of Deco's portraits, it's so vivid it looks like she painted it with oils. In fact, one of her still-life collages won Best Award at an exhibition of oil paintings. "The judge thought it was an oil from a distance," she says.

Vintage newspapers, though, aren't normally what she cuts up to create collages. "My source material comes through the mail slotâ€"catalogues and magazines. I try to turn useless trash into treasures," she explains. Her only tools are scissors and a roller that applies glue to the backs of the scraps.

After the success of her Flynn portrait, Deco received a commission to portray the entrance to Carnegie Library in Salamanca, N.Y. It had been shuttered and its books removed to a local Kmart. Deco's "dreamy" approach to the defunct library "unshuttered the soul of the building," she says. The work later was displayed at the Oak Park Public Library to advertise its show, "The Glory of Books."

Closer to home, Deco was commissioned to create a collage of Lincoln School, which sits at the end of her River Forest block. "It's tricky to do architecture," she notes, "because a collage doesn't have precise lines."

The piece, "Some May," focuses on the "swirl of activity of a child on the playground," she says.

Deco does demonstrations of her collage art for students at Lincoln and other grammar schools and high schools. Kids, she notes, are "always eager to get into the gluing. Collage is so simple and satisfying. The colors and texture are intriguingâ€"you're using paper like paint." She also conducts workshops for adults.

Her inspiration for pieces comes and goes. She found artistic energyâ€"and fast workâ€"in the cataclysmic events of 9/11. "Some artists were filled with anger and patriotic fervor," she recalls. "I recognized the grief and sadness."

Deco "transformed sorrow into acceptance" with "So, Joy," her still life of a golden harvest pear. "Pears were bursting with life," she says of the subject of the work she completed on Sept. 12, 2001. Imprinted on the pear are the words of St. Francis: "Where there is sorrow, let me sow joy."

"Landscapes & Mindscapes: A Group Exhibition" runs through July 8 at The Art House, 43 Harrison St. Gallery hours are Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Fridays, 5 to 9 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays, 12 to 5 p.m. Call 763-9533 for information.

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