“WHERE ARE THEY NOW?”
AFH Alumni Stories: Edition 03 — Free Marseille
Free Marseille’s first day as a participant was spent sitting in Artists For Humanity’s third floor Painting Studio. Open and occupied floor to ceiling with paintings, and window to window with easels, Free remembers the space brimming with the feeling of possibility.
“I’m seeing all of these amazing paintings and I just couldn’t wait to get started.” He said, “I knew that if I was around these people, there was so much I could learn.”
Free, an immigrant from Haiti who has resided in Brockton, MA since he was eight years old, first heard of AFH through an expansion program looking to open an AFH branch in Brockton. Although he hadn’t visited the AFH studio before, he was recruited in 2008 during his junior year in high school and spent the following summer involved in the AFH experience.
While art had always been present in Free’s life, AFH presented a unique setting in which to practice it.
“My motivation to join was that I only knew about art and art practice in my art class. I only knew about it in small rooms with a few easels and the supplies they provided,” he said.
“I heard about this place that was filled with other people and, back then, I wanted to see what it was like to be around so many artists. It sounded like something in a movie.”
Art, and creativity in general, began early for Free. Since childhood, engaging with art was a way to entertain himself while playing in front of his house. At eleven, he was making portraits for people in his neighborhood and, in high school, he spent time making MySpace layouts for himself and his friends. In addition to the visual arts, Free also spent his time dancing with his friends and developing a fascination with poetry and creative expression. Although he was well versed in the arts by the time he joined the program, Free cites AFH as a place where he discovered painting as a hotbed of inspiration.
“I never left the Painting Studio. There was never a point when I felt like I needed to. I’m still learning,” he said, explaining how his focus on painting was due to a lack of additional support from other extracurriculars. “Everything I was doing outside of AFH supplemented what I did at AFH so I didn’t feel the need to supplement it there.”
Despite it being such a large part of his life, Free conceived of art as a passion, not a future. However, as he progressed through the program, this changed. Free reflects on how the program had a hand in his journey from creativity as a hobby to a career. The business model that is inevitably linked to the teens’ experience provides them with the opportunity to practice art in a formal setting with a larger goal in mind. For some, this meant applying and being accepted to art or design school. For Free, this meant the transition from personal to professional art making.
The first individually commissioned piece that Free did for AFH is one he remembers well. He was asked to paint an owl in a style of his preference. Recounting this experience, Free recalls how the thought process behind the creation of this painting provided a novel challenge that changed the perspective of his usual art making process.
“I was really nervous because I was surprised by the subject matter. Whenever I start a piece, it never really looks ideal at first, it just builds up to that final stroke. I started doing this piece and I forgot about that process.”
“When the painting wasn’t looking like I wanted it to, it made me nervous, it made me think that maybe I wasn’t the right person for the job. But I just took it home and kept working on it and it eventually came together.”
This experience, a lesson in confidence, professional opportunity, and growth, served to shape Free’s path after graduation. Free graduated high school and pursued higher education at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). After two years there, he transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he earned a degree in Illustration.
“If I didn’t work at AFH, I doubt I would have gone to art school,” he said. “I didn’t really take it seriously before I started working here,” Free explained.
“Being here and getting the chance to develop my skills gave me a boost. So when I went to college, I think I ended up working harder than a lot of my peers.”
Even after he graduated high school, Free was able to reflect on the ways in which AFH impacted not only the Boston community as a whole, but also the community in which he grew up. AFH’s Beyond the Stratos mural at Brockton’s Enterprise Building bears the hallmark of Free’s work, along with that of dozens of other artists involved. Free notes how this mural, one of his most memorable projects, reflects the direct impact of AFH on his community.
“We had hired about 20 people from Brockton to work with us and none of them had done art before. So we had to teach them and immerse them in the process that way. That was how I learned to be a mentor,” he said, speaking to the challenges the project faced during its inception and execution.
But before the mural found its place in Brockton, AFH had already begun making its mark on the teens of Brockton and Brockton High School.
“Everyone knew about AFH. Our friends would visit all of the time. We always had our AFH shirts on and it got to the point where people who didn’t work here had their own AFH shirts. AFH was a household name in a way at Brockton High.”
“So it impacted the school in that way, by having a presence,” Free said.
AFH was a place where Free proved to himself that art can be a career as well as a passion. Throughout his time in the program, he discovered balance and confidence, but above all, he discovered a place where teens are able to experience firsthand how art can be more than just a talent or a hobby.
To Free, AFH served as more than just a space that cultivated art and provided a weekly paycheck. He saw it as a place that developed links between people and communities, and provided a safe space for Boston teenagers.
“One of my favorite things to look back on is my last summer as a teen at AFH,” Free said.
“After work, there was a large group of us, about twenty, who would stay after. Pretty much the entire teen staff would go outside and play manhunt or capture the flag in the parking lot. We were able to live as kids and have fun.”
He explains, “That was amazing to me because we had formed links to one another and it created a really large circle where we all came together.”
Over half of the mentors at AFH are former participants, and Free numbered one among many who have returned as mentors. He cites the leadership skills he learned as a teen at AFH as the most valuable tools for him to apply and pass on as he transitioned to a mentorship role.
Free explains, “My first summer at AFH solidified my childhood fantasy of making art full-time and being able to make a living from it. That first summer convinced me that it was a realistic goal, and not just a fantasy.”
He continues, “As a mentor, I was constantly having conversations with my group, encouraging them to follow their hearts’ desires, and to go after their dreams even if they seemed unreachable. Having a leadership position in the Painting Studio and being recruitment coordinator for AFH gave me a chance to connect with nearly every teen that AFH hired.”
Free describes how his passion to create was activated by getting to know the teens. He says, “I was immersed in their stories, and learning about their views of the world. Those conversations and relationships informed most of the work that I was creating on the side while working at AFH full-time.” In the summer of 2017, Free moved on from AFH to practice his artistic pursuits and passions more intently.
“Eventually, I started desiring to connect with my group on a level that was deeper than just my physical presence and mentorship. I realized that in order to be the best mentor that I could be to them, I would have to step out and be as bold in following my dreams as I was encouraging them to be.”
In the process, Free also saw the transformative power of art as a practice. Free explains, “Over the years, I learned the importance of expressing ourselves; how powerful art was in generating change in our world. After leaving AFH, I put all of my energy into creating work that would hopefully add to the ongoing dialogues I had been having with the teens I mentored. Today, I have the privilege of participating in the creation of art that is consumed by people all over the world.”
“I am mostly creating work for artists in the music industry, with an emphasis on singles and album covers, merchandise design, and overall branding. I hope that in the near future, I could work collaboratively with my favorite artists on stage design, films, installations, etc. (my goal list is really long). I have some personal projects currently in the works as well which I can’t wait to share. I think about my group all of the time, and they continue to be my biggest inspiration. They inspired me to move beyond so many internal fears and obstacles that prevented me from fully expressing myself artistically. In all honesty, I just want to make them proud and show them that everything I spoke with them about is actually possible.”
Interviewed and written by Grace Yuh and Jane Elmets. All images courtesy of the artist.