Neal Mann

Focus: Caleb Freese Interview

Neal Mann
Focus: Caleb Freese Interview

Focus explores the creative talent within the climbing community.

New York City-based climber and artist Caleb Freese takes inspiration from the environment around him. His multilayered pieces draw on his experiences both in the wilderness and the city. 

How did you first discover your love of art and begin finding your own style? 

Discovering art was a process of denial for me. I took only one art class in high school and famously told my teacher that art was not a real subject and I wouldn't do any homework for it. Ooops. I've since gone back and apologized to my teacher. I basically tried to be anything BUT an artist up until when I was 21.  I'd realized art was the only effortless thing in my life. I also felt limited by certain disciplines of study and with art I could explore any concept or idea and connect them in anyway I felt needed. It was freedom of thought to a degree, freedom to pursue anything I felt compelling. That and drawing is fun.

I had a lot of catchup to do with starting to make art later in life but it had advantages as well. I feel like I had a strong identity and clarity about myself when I began. I dove into oil painting with a mentor, Keiko Hara (a Japanese printmaker and painter), who drilled into me a work discipline that is a foundation for everything I do today. She destroyed a painting I'd worked on for four months to teach me to never get attached to my work. You cannot fully push your limits if you're too attached to something. I don't spend much time worrying about where my art fits or its implications, historical place or what any other artists are doing. I don't care about any of that. I like making things, so I focus on that. I've also got a lot of other interests so when I'm not making art I'm climbing, surfing, going down rivers, backpacking or biking. I'm drawn to printmaking because of the ability to create editions allows my art to be accessible. I want people to own my art, I want people to be able to afford it. I do make expensive art as well in the form of commissions, instillations and process heavy art. I'm mostly self taught in everything except painting or drawing. Most the tools now I use I've had little to no formal training. From setting ghetto silkscreen studios in my living room to sneaking into colleges I'd never attended to use their print labs to just a whole lot of trial and error I've slowly learned practices that's developed my style.

Maybe it's from listening to a lot of rap music growing up but when I first started making art I decided I wanted to have a unique style. I didn't want to be limited to the medium but I wanted it to be unique. That's always been a focus of mine, at times at the expense of execution or formalities. My style is technical, detailed, literal, abstract, energetic, colorful with a whole lot of movement. I try to have fun. I usually try to do too much at the cost of accessibility. But I don't want to make boring art.

How much impact has your climbing and time spent in the wilderness had on your style? 

At first, the impact was indirect as I attempted to keep them separate. Making art is a struggle and I always looked as being in the wilderness (climbing and rivers) as an escape from all things work related. So I intentionally kept them separate. Recently they have merged and I think it's the right time to do this.

I spent the years 2001-09 guiding, living out the back of my truck or camping seasons by the river through Colorado, South Carolina, Oregon and Washington state. As a whitewater guide, I really love the committing aspect to running rivers. A good guide realizes the river is always in control and often there's a degree of acceptance and respect that I appreciate when guiding. I guided class 5 rivers such as the Chattooga, White Salmon (Farmlands) and Wind rivers.

I moved to NYC after a couple of deaths on the river I worked. It made me question my life I guess and forced me to think about the things I wanted from life. I got a residency in Manhattan which gave me free studio space for a year. It was a transition to city life. The adrenaline and and reward one gets from outdoor pursuits is pretty addicting. I struggled with anxiety my first year in NYC because of this.

I'd say climbing, biking and surfing really made my NYC life amazing. The community and support of the climbing community (I work part time at Brooklyn Boulders) was incredible. With the lack of nature in my life I started doing two things: Making art with nature as the subject and gardening a lot.  

Climbers are some of the most supportive people around and their inspiration (from amazing friends who've started things like FlashFoxy, Dank and BOC) and encouragement to make cool shit has driven my creation process in the past years.

My most recent show, Hooray for You, I created topographic drawings to represent my years in the wilderness. After doing a beer label for an amazing local brewery, I started drawing lots of plants and flowers. This was an accident that fit pretty well, so I incorporated a very nature/architectural concept in this most recent show. You can see the artworks here:


Mural paint + digital printing on wood, Chicago Brooklyn Boulders.

Mural paint + digital printing on wood, Chicago Brooklyn Boulders.

What processes goes into producing a piece from conception to completion? 

Inspiration! This is from spending time in the city out outside. I do a lot of backpacking, being in the woods and taking a bunch of photos (as well as long river trips). I take photos with my phone; it's lightweight and I just use them for reference so quality isn't much of a concern. I take about 3000 to 5000 a month.

I also take photos around the city, usually from my bike as I get a good vantage point from the street of buildings and people.

Drawing! I draw topographic maps of place I've visited and cities I spend time in- I've always be obsessed with maps and these ones I draw are a bit fantastical, often incorporating both cities and nature/mountains at once.

Painting! I paint with Japanese Sumi ink on transparent medium to layer paintings. This gives them an immediate feel with a lot of depth. I high res scan them in from there.

I also paint with fabric dyes to produce super vibrant colors which take a couple days to dry—unless I leave them outside on a super sunny, warm day.

Compose! I do a lot of my planning and preparation on the computer. It allows me to quickly change color, see things up close or from the distance, mock up art and generally be free to play a bunch without wasting materials.

Creating! The final product is a combination of drawings, paintings layered with silkscreen. I spend a lot of time in the silkscreen studio printing myself or with an assistant to build up very layered compositions on a variety of materials (wood, glass, paper and canvas).


What advice would you give to anyone looking to anyone looking to follow a similar path?

The unexpected things in life often provide the most enjoyment, so don’t get too caught up in what you want to do. Just do something. Making art would be boring if everything you did turned out how you expected.  

Like climbing, momentum is key. Keep moving. Art is hard work, so make a lot and never stop making things, even if they suck. Not making art is worse than making bad art. If you make something awesome, don’t get too attached to it.

If you go beautiful places, take time to document it but don’t post it online right away. Make something with it.

And get a dog. They help everything in life.

See more work from Caleb's latest show Hooray For You here

Follow him on Instagram here