Ciaran Freeman is a senior majoring in studio art and art history. His lengthy resume includes being a student fellow at Recology in San Francisco, a Jean Donovan Fellow working at the Commonweal Magazine (read one of his articles), an immersion trip coordinator, the founder of the Santa Clara Student Art League and the Assistant Residence Director in the Casa Italiana residence hall. Ciaran’s art explores social justice issues like immigration, family history and racial justice. After graduating, Ciaran will be in New York with a Jesuit organization where he has been awarded the Joseph A. O’Hare Postgraduate Media Fellowship.
Selected Interview Highlights:
Gavin Cosgrave: What would you say to a student who is considering studying art but worried about having a job and marketable skills?
Ciaran Freeman: It’s a tough question. I came into Santa Clara knowing I wanted to do studio art, which is atypical here. I always thought I would add something practical that would open up doors for me or guarantee a job. But, as I took more and more classes, I started falling in love with art history and added that as a second major, which really doesn’t open up any more doors.
For me it was about finding what I’m good at and what I love. I’ve been really successful here because I’ve fully committed to art as opposed to doing something I’m not passionate about that has more long-term certainty. I don’t want to quit something if it’s going well, and right now it’s going well for me. I think there’s a lot of majors here that don’t guarantee jobs. You’re gaining skills that can be applicable to the workforce, and I feel like I’m doing that through Residence Life and extracurriculars.
GC: Was there a moment growing up when you knew art was going to be your future?
CF: No. I always liked art and I was always good at art. When I got to high school, art classes challenged me the most. You have to think creatively in art classes. In most other classes, as long as you study, you would do well in the class. With art, there is no textbook, you have to find the answers yourself, and I found that much more gratifying. When I was successful in my art practice, I felt like it was of my own doing. I loved the conversations that were going on in classrooms in high school.
GC: How do art and social justice intersect for you?
CF: Those are the buzzwords on my resume—art and social justice—it’s what I’m passionate about and want to keep exploring. I went on a spring break immersion my freshman year to San Jose which was local and great. I had an opportunity to lead an immersion to the Arizona border as a sophomore. Immigration issues are something that I’m fascinated with. I come from an immigrant family myself, my dad is from Ireland, and I deal with that in my artistic practice.
I started learning to ask questions by being in circles that talked about social justice. We went to the border and were able to meet migrants and learn about, in my opinion, the double standard of what it means to be a white immigrant versus an immigrant of color.
This past year I led an immersion to Ecuador which was cool to see how people live outside the U.S. This past summer, I got a Jean Donovan Fellowship with Commonweal Magazine in New York City, and they gave me the opportunity to walk around the city really looking at the intersection of art and social justice.
The first place I went was the Sean Kelley Gallery, and I got to see a Kehinde Wiley show. Kehinde Wiley is probably the foremost black painter right now, and he paints figurative work that places black figures at the center of it.
I was there with a group of students from the Bronx Charter School for the Arts, and these were young black students who were there seeing art by a black artist in a top-tier gallery. Kehinde Wiley was really breaking some barriers himself while paying homage to other black artists who have broken barriers. It was creating a new environment for children, and being in the gallery space with them was a really exciting moment.
GC: What will you be doing after graduating?
CF: I applied for the Joseph A O’Hare Postgraduate Media Fellowship which is from the media organization the Jesuits run in New York, and I was lucky to win the fellowship, and I’ll be looking at and writing about art and social justice in different mediums like video, podcast, written word and digital.
I’ve had some experiences with activism and found out that it wasn’t really for me. Activism takes a lot of work that I was interested in, but being on one side of an issue. I prefer to take a nuanced understanding and apply my own life and own experiences to it. I’m able to explore these questions in less of a deliberate fashion and in a more roundabout way through my own paintings and work. Continuing to ask those questions is how I’m contributing to those conversations and to figuring out who I am in the world and how that impacts other people.
GC: This past year, you were a student fellow at Recology, the waste management company for the city of San Francisco. What did you work on there?
CF: I spent time sifting through garbage and thinking about how to make that into artwork. It culminated with my first solo exhibition; the first time I created an entire body of work to show as one cohesive body in my own space. I created 26 works over the four months. I had a studio up in San Francisco and used the spaces in Dowd.
It was an amazing experience because not many people have the opportunity to have their own solo exhibition. It really proved to me that this was something that I could continue doing if I set my mind to it. It was well-received and it gave me the affirmations I needed to make the harder parts of being an artist worth it.
GC: How do you get inspiration?
CF: I think one of the most important things that a visual artist can do is go out and look at art. I’ve been lucky to have lots of opportunities to do that, going to galleries and museums. I’m constantly reading Artsy magazine and following Jerry Saltz who is a great art critic.
It’s sometimes daunting to go into a museum and spend four hours and spend $25 to get in, but it’s important to do nonetheless.
Last spring I was getting antsy and bored, and I decided to take the quarter off and I ended up going to Europe for six weeks. Most of the time I just visited different cities and look at art. The biggest thing is to just look and see how it can inspire me.
GC: You also started the Student Art League on campus. What does that group do?
CF: We’re an organization of people who look at and make art on campus. Even if you’re unrelated to the art or art history departments, you’re more than welcome. I wanted to create an organization to meet the needs of student artists. One of the best ways to improve as an artist is to talk critically about and think about your work on a higher level. It’s a lot less intimidating to go to a museum if you’re with a group, so we’ve taken a lot of trips.