A prolific and versatile artist James J Froese worked in a variety of media. He is best known for his paintings, drawings and assemblages. His artistic style encompasses a range from highly realistic to totally non-objective; often using references to historical events and influences of Native American Art. A visual storyteller, Froese juxtaposes whimsy with the mundane, unraveling the complex layers beneath our common experiences. James Froese is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Ford Foundation Purchase Award (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri). Froese has been exhibited alongside Salvador Dali in a juried art show. His works reside in the private collections of artists throughout the United States.
James J. Froese received his BFA from the Kansas City art Institute. He attended KCAI under full scholarship all four years graduating second in his class. He continued his studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art working towards his MFA degree. Once again he was granted a full scholarship, majoring in painting and sculpture. He finished his Master’s degree at Wichita University in Kansas and began teaching art at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama. In 1968 he became the Head of the University of Missouri’s Art Extension Program. During this time, he lectured, taught art classes, over saw art exhibitions and judged community art shows throughout the state of Missouri. He ended his career teaching art for the MU’s art department. Upon retirement Froese withdrew from the public realm to concentrate on his private art work. (Reprinted with permission from jjfroese.com)
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James J. Froese died in 2012. In place of an artist’s statement, Editor Amy Wilder conducted an interview with his son, Ethan.
These images specifically embody a sense of nostalgia; it strikes me there aren’t a lot of newer vehicles. What was James’s relationship to these vehicles?
We can start with bicycles. He grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas, and the family wasn’t particularly wealthy, so cars were kind of rare, though they were there. He would always talk about the bicycles he and Bob (his brother) had.
I remember one particular story, that their parents bought Bob a nice bike and dad was real unhappy because he didn’t get one too. He knew the specific bike he wanted, and there was this intricate, elaborate bicycle … but Bob said, “Your dad got it and he hated it because the damn thing was so heavy he couldn’t keep up with everybody.”
But he actually rode – even all through the Kansas City Art Institute (where James studied) days, he didn’t have a car. He just couldn’t afford one. One of his friends noted in an article that he wrote that dad was very proud of the bike; it was a high end one and dad took great care of it.
As a kid, I remember he had some really nice bicycles in his studio. He pre-dated myself and my brother in an interest in bicycles. We were interested in bicycles because he was, not the other way around. Between like 1982 and 1990 I was hell-bent on becoming a pro on the bike; I’ve raced bikes for 30 years, and often people say, “Your dad must have painted this stuff because you were interested in bikes,” but he was doing it way before I was.
I remember one of the first nice bikes I had was this old Stella, and while I was gone at school one day, dad took it and painted the frame. He did a really intricate job on the lugs – he outlined all of the lugs and painted my name on the top, too. It was a really cool. No idea where that bike’s at now. I was in high school.
Dad always had this – he always like bicycles. We’d watch the Tour de France together and he was absorbed with bicycles and the racing. He really liked the bicycle as an art form. He really appreciated it a lot, though he obviously liked cars a lot too.
That’s a good segue, actually. It seems like there were specific cars that he had relationships with, like the red truck.
Right. The red truck may have been the last car he had a solid relationship with. I believe it was a 1969 Dodge. That was the same truck he’d use to drive around town and pilfer items out of dumpsters … for art items.
He’d drive it painfully slow, too. I remember one day I was riding with him; there were a bunch of people behind him, honking. He looked over at me and said, “Well, if they would have got up 15 minutes earlier, they wouldn’t have this problem.”
That was probably the last old vehicle that he worked on and restored. Before that he had a ’49 International truck and he also had a 1936 Chevy truck.
So not only did he make paintings of these vehicles, he actually worked on them as well.
Oh yeah. He did all of the body work and mechanical. Growing up, he and Bob both worked for Vern (their uncle) at his gas station. You’ve probably seen the piece “Vern and the Snake.”
That was my grandmother’s brother. They worked for him at the service station, and Bob was the first one to get a car. I remember dad and Bob both telling stories about how they really worked on that car and turned it inside out, restored it to this beautiful car – and Bob loaned it to some guy for a day and the guy wrecked the car.
Yeah, I mean, especially for a couple of blue collar Kansas kids that really didn’t have a lot.
Some of those earliest memories you see of him and his relationship with cars were with Vern – Vern driving the Model T or Model A, taking the kids out fishing. Dad always talked about that.
In fact when the doctor came in to see if dad was suitable to die at home, dad told the doctor “I know Vern and everyone else is waiting for me, so I want to go see them now.” He had this real connection to Vern, the cars and the gas station – which also kind of leans into the Becker Place paintings.
The Becker Place was – he had a friend in high school named Carl Becker. They’d go hunt and fish on Carl’s dad’s land a little bit northeast of Hutchinson, out in the sand dune areas. The place was just populated with old cars. Those Becker Place series are dad’s recollections of the old cars out on that land.
It seems like these images really capture his experiences of his life – of being a 20th Century American and artist.
I never got to talk to him enough about art to know how he fit in the century as an artist, but I know he was very nostalgic for family and certain parts of Kansas. He loved certain things about Kansas, which some people will find strange, right? But at the same time, he hated it.
My take on it is dad was also very much an intellectual. He was very well read. He could go on ad nauseum about history and art history and philosophy. So he saw himself in this kind of paradoxical relationship with Kansas.
He loved his family and he loved the blue collar ways, but at the same time, he understood that they had no clue what he was about. They thought it was weird. He talked about that to me more than once… they never quite understood that he was an artist.
I think the vehicles in these images are so iconic that almost any American can look at them and get an association of feelings and private images – it’s funny how cars really capture something about the American psyche.
Again, dad had this really strong connection to family and Kansas. He was a mamma’s boy – loved his mom, and dad too. And loved his brother and sister. In fact family were the only people allowed to piss him off and he would forgive them. Outside of the tribe, if you pissed him off once, you were gone.
Those cars, those pictures you see and those early Kansas cars were just part of his upbringing; part of that whole Kansas culture – driving around in a car to go fish.
He told me a story about how his dad would take him and Bob out on back country roads, and shoot game from the car, and dad and Bob would have to go get the game. So these stories always had a car. Dad loved old cars, just loved ’em.
Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you’d like people to know about this work?
What’s interesting too is all the – like Will Rogers on his Indian motorbike. Dad loved those Wild West figures too.
When he was a kid and had polio, he read a lot in bed, and a lot of what he read was stories of wild West guys that were kind of cowboys but also beginning to transition into the century of cars and the industrial world. I think he was fascinated with that, too