Anyone who has spent time on Penn Avenue in Garfield over the past few months probably noticed the mirrored mosaic facade of the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination, and wondered, "What is a center for the imagination?" and "Who was Irma Freeman?"
Well, this morning I got answers to both of those questions from Sheila Ali, granddaughter of Irma Freeman and executive director of the center, which is holding a grand opening celebration with music and art this Friday night, Oct. 9, from 6 to 10 p.m.
Irma Freeman was born in Malsch-Baden Germany on the first day of Chanukah 1903, the daughter of a traveling rabbi. She came to America in the early 1920s, eventually marrying and settling in Pittsburgh. But she lived a difficult life. She lost several relatives in the Holocaust despite efforts to secure green cards for them, and she lost her four-year-old son in an accident that affected her so deeply she didn't speak for nearly two years.
But she was also a wonderful artist with diverse sensibilities. She painted realistic portraits and impressionistic still lives. Over the course of her life, she produced more than 500 canvases, most after the age of 70. She spent most of her life painting for her own enjoyment, but in her 80s and 90s began to show her work in exhibitions around town.
The Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination is a combination art gallery and community center. Ali said the idea is to bridge the gap between community groups and show spaces in the Garfield area. Ali wants to use the space to hold exhibits of local artists, but also to hold art classes for neighborhood children, giving them a way to improve life through art.
Ali said the center is based on the life of her grandmother, who she said used art as a way to beautify the difficult elements of her life. In that vein, the exhibit Friday night is called "The Art of Salvation and the Visionary Art of Irma Freeman." The show focuses on "salvage artists," people who make art from recycled or previously discarded materials.
Even the building is based on that idea. Ali said the goal is to make the center as sustainable and self-sufficient as possible, with radiant heating in the floors and eventually alternative forms of energy — like a small wind mill — providing electricity for the building.