by Anita Chan, April 2018
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life
for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion t that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.”
Such were the words of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of Union Address that inspired American artist Norman Rockwell to create his famous “Four Freedoms” paintings in 1943 and the artist Louis Ebarb to initiate an art-based project after the 2016 US Presidential election. As 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series, Ebarb considers it timely to remind everyone of these four essential freedoms through artistic expression – not just of his own, but also of artists from different cultures, ethnicities, and beliefs.
Elaborating on his thinking behind the project, Ebarb said, “After the U.S. election of 2016, I was confused and dissatisfied with the political result. I was in sympathy with many of the protests against the results but was very uncomfortable that even some people who I have loved and know to be caring individuals sometimes argued fiercely and unyieldingly from very different perspectives.”
The Four Freedoms Project is meant to both inform and inspire. He added: “I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind but I do hope to find common ground with both sides of the political spectrum so that the ideals and goals that the F.D.R.’s Four Freedoms remind us of our better selves.”
In response to Ebarb’s invitation, four painters with diverse cultural background and artistic styles each created four works for the Four Freedoms Project 2018. Together with Ebarb’s own four paintings, the twenty art pieces were exhibited at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York State from May 5th to the end of June, 2018. Although they are all on the same theme, the great variety in style, subject matters and medium is remarkable.
The Artists and Their Works
Louis Ebarb (Project Coordinator)
A native New Yorker with Italian, Native American, and Spanish blood, Ebarb studied at the Pratt Institute and has been painting in oil for over 30 years. He has painted both landscapes and portraits, but his specialty is urban street scenes.
“The Four Freedoms Project is a reflection of my 30 years of creative focus on my day-to-day experiences and travels which I called my Street Dance Series: everyday people, places and situations elevated and honored with paint on canvas.”
Each painting for the project started as a photograph he took on a street or, in the case of the Freedom of Religion, a Brooklyn subway station.
The Freedom of Expression painting is of a lady that he saw standing defiantly at a sidewalk in Portland, Oregon in June 2017. The Freedom from Want depicts a scene of abundance and everyday grocery shopping at a Boston green market, while the Freedom from Fear incorporates the bronze sculpture Fearless Girl by Kristen Visbal that faces Wall Street’s iconic “Charging Bull” statue and juxtaposes it with a calm yet dignified-looking young woman standing behind it.
As in most of Ebarb’s works, all the people in his Four Freedoms Project are ordinary folks doing something pretty ordinary in their lives. But to the artist they are symbolic of the freedoms that many of us may have taken for granted and hence worthy of being honored with his paintings. As he explained, “They all have in common an unremarkable moment made remarkable when frozen in time on my canvases.”
Lorraine Brooks, an African American artist who is also a native New Yorker, attended the High School of Art and Design in New York City. Her specialty is realistic pen and ink portraitures, using the stippling technique. Like Ebarb, Brooks believes in working for the greater societal good within one’s means. She accepts the invitation to participate in the Four Freedoms Project readily, as the theme strikes a personal chord.
Brooks said, “Being a woman of color, my entire life has been a reflection of the mandate for a deeper understanding of the needs and realities of minorities in all aspects of daily life. I came of age in the 1960s, a time of political and racial turmoil in the US, and many of the issues we faced 50 years ago as high school and college students are more than relevant in today’s United States, and worldwide.”
“Basic freedoms are always relevant and unfortunately, often need to be reaffirmed and re-championed,” she added. “The climate of the US in particular at this time in history is testament to the difficulties faced when basic freedoms and rights are questioned and revoked, and the fundamental human need for respect is tarnished and broken”
The main challenge for her lied in choosing who to portray as representatives of the four freedoms. Brooks wanted the series to include both famous personages who would be easily recognizable and lesser-known heroes whose contributions deserve to be brought to the fore. She had no particular ethnic preferences but had focused on those who were significant to her personally and could convey the ideals she had in mind.
In the end, her ink stippling series for the Four Freedoms Project include three persons of color: James Baldwin (Freedom of Speech), Paul Robeson (Freedom from Fear), Elijah Muhammad (Freedom of Religion); and one white person: Jimmy Carter (Freedom from Want). To her, all of them represent strong convictions and life-long dedication to the fight for humanity on various platforms.
She hopes that the subjects of her portraits will inspire viewers to reflect on what they stand for. She said, “If they are unfamiliar with them, I hope they will find out more about their work and their importance as voices of freedom and self-determination.”
Francisco Malonzo is a New York-based artist specializing in oil portraitures. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, he has studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League, the New York Academy of Art, and the National Academy of Design.
For him, the Four Freedoms Project is particularly relevant after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. “The Trump administration actively suppresses all four freedoms among those who do not conform to its white, male, and upper middle class agenda. The Four Freedoms concept is relevant to everyone around the world today,” Malonzo said.
“I also want to interpret the Four Freedoms from a different point of view from Norman Rockwell, i.e. non-male, non-white, non-narrative, and based on historical figures.”
Malonzo, an urbane, soft-spoken man, is no stranger to expressing strong personal beliefs through his art works. He had painted a text-based portrait of a Latino-American, inspired by Barbara Kruger and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The experience was so empowering and exhilarating that he wanted to relive it with the Four Freedoms Project while using a different technique.
For the project, Malonzo had boldly departed from his customary art practice and created four portraits which were unlike anything he had produced before. For the first time, he used acrylic on plexiglass, painted from photographs rather than using live models, placed the black and white portraits of his subjects against a solid color background, and painted small (12x12 inches).
On his subjects, Malonzo had this to say : “ My idea was to celebrate four women who embody the four freedoms: Oprah Winfrey, philanthropist and entrepreneur (Freedom from Want), Mahalia Jackson, gospel singer (Freedom of Worship), Angela Davis, radical feminist (Freedom of Speech), and Rosa Parks, civil rights activist (Freedom from Fear).”
His composition was inspired by the graphic art of the 1960s, particularly record album covers. “I've always admired the immediacy and simplicity of of this style,” Malonzo added. The use of plexiglass was also deliberate : “I used plexiglass supports because of its deep, rich colors and reflective surfaces, which would bring the viewer's image into the visual experience.”
Malonzo’s the series was also meant as a tribute to contemporary African-American painters who use photo-based portraiture and saturated colors to communicate larger social, cultural, and political ideas, particularly Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Njideka Akunyili, Barclay Hendrix, and Mickalene Thomas.
Tina So, a native Hong Kong artist, is unique in her international exposure. She has studied and worked in Hong Kong, Toronto, Nanjing, and Shanghai, graduating with a B.A. in fine arts from the RMIT University of Melbourne, Australia. Painting on wooden panels and working with woodblock printing are her preferred means of artistic expression.
In response to Ebarb’s call for a joint project to raise awareness of the Four Freedoms ideals, So gladly agreed to participate. She believes that it is worthwhile to re-examine the implications of FDR’s ideas for the world today.
As an artist born and bred in Hong Kong, a city that used to be a British colony before 1997 and is now part of the People’s Republic of China under a unique “One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement that is still evolving, So feels that FDR’s ideas of more than seventy years ago are equally relevant to those living in the city today.
“I have always felt grateful for the privilege of growing up in an open-minded and free society like Hong Kong. We have seen too often how political super-institutions and ruling governments could be tempted to silence oppositions and criticisms, bend the meaning of “public interests” to suit their needs, and use brutal force to advance their agenda,” she said. “It always seems that we are just one step away from losing our freedoms if we are not mindful. Here in Hong Kong, I sense that we are already experiencing some fall off from what it used to be.”
A key characteristic of So’s works is the juxtaposition of realistic and abstract elements in an imaginary space. Meanings are often not immediately apparent, and much room is allowed for imagination as well as individual interpretation. This is also true of her paintings for the Four Freedoms Project. Describing her creative process, So explained, “I rely on the technique of free associations and stream of consciousness, allowing my collective reflection to flow freely.” Her wish is that viewers can construct and re-construct their own understanding and emotional response. “I consider this a form of internal dialogue, an interactive exchange of reflection,” she expounded.
Instead of attempting to depict the Four Freedoms, So chose to call her series “In Search of the Four Freedoms”. In response to each of the freedoms, she included a textual answer in the works as subtitles. For “Freedom of Speech”, it is “Cogito ergo sum” in Latin, or “I think therefore I am” in English. For “Freedom of Religion”, it is “Fidei defensor”, which means” Defender of faith”. For Freedom from Want, the reply is “inveniet quad quisque velit”, or “Each shall find what he desires”. And finally for “Freedom from Fear”, it is echoed with the words “Audemus jura nostra defendere”, which means “We dare to defend our rights”.
The four works are all painted on wood panels and each is a triptych, reminiscent of Medieval church altarpieces. So said that she chose this format “to show respect for the embodied messages and pay tribute to those who have made sacrifices in the process of pursuing such freedoms.”
ChiFung Wong, an artist based in New York, was born in Macau and educated in Japan. He received his Ph.D. in Fine Art at the Kyushu Sangyo University of Japan before moving to New York City, where he studied painting at the National Academy School of Fine Art. Wong is a prolific and versatile artist adept at working with different at mediums, including oil, water-color, ink, and pastel. His specialty is floral paintings embodying both Japanese and Western aesthetics influences.
Wong describes himself as a realistic still-life painter. The Four Freedoms Project represents an artistic breakthrough for him on more than one level. For the first time, the painter gave all his subject matters rich symbolic meanings. He also experimented with a mix of mediums as well as freer, looser brushstrokes to create a mystic effect. Wong said, “It was the first time for me to mix the two medium of sumi-ink and acrylic in the same painting. I feel lucky to have found a new painting style which I like a lot.”
When asked about the thinking behind his paintings, Wong explained, “Dream/Wish is the idea I wish to convey as that is how I see the Four Freedoms. Although they may seem real to many, in my view they are ideals that remain abstract, unattainable, and open to interpretation. I have therefore chosen a recognizable object for each painting – a mouth (freedom of speech), a candle (freedom of religion), an apple (freedom from want), and a skull (freedom from fear) – but none of them are in sharp focus. I want to create images that remind one of a dream – you seem to know what you see and what you are experiencing but cannot be sure. There are always some parts that are not entirely clear and whose meaning eludes you.”
“Like the Four Freedoms, they may look like the reality but it’s up to you to create the story,” he added.
The Four Freedoms Project represents the joint efforts of five artists with very diverse ethnic, cultural, and educational background. Each has her/his own distinct artistic style and preferred mediums. Above all, each brings a completely different and personal angle in their representation of the Four Freedoms. This in itself is a most befitting celebration of the freedoms of expression and beliefs.
What the five artists share is the common wish for wider attention to the Four Freedoms ideals that inspire them. They hope that viewers will be moved to reflect on the meaning of these freedoms, and remember the importance of such freedoms not only for themselves but for all peoples.
Louis Ebarb, the project director, said. “I was reminded by Rockwell’s four paintings of the Four Freedoms that we have common goals and needs to live unencumbered by fear, hunger, as well as suppression of expression and religious beliefs. This is true no matter the form of government or the individuals who govern. I hope that the Four Freedoms Project will spark the same epiphany in the participating artists, writers, viewers and readers.”