The Photographs of Mirle E. Freel, Jr
By Dr. Julie Sasse, Chief Curator
Mirle E. Freel, Jr., Untitled from the series “Direct Experience: A Splash of Glass” 1988-1999, Cibachrome print, Gift of the artist.
Mirle E. Freel, Jr. is inspired by the contradictions of life versus the surreal face of existence, joy versus sadness, and anxiety versus serenity. He sees himself as an observer of life, and this sense of discovery has informed his photography and paintings. A life-long Westerner, Freel was born in 1940 in Casper, Wyoming, and developed a deep love of nature. As Freel muses, “Living in Wyoming, I had solitary conversations with the mountains and wildlife which were far less invasive to me than wildlife in the cities. The trout, elk, deer, and bear were observers too and I walked with them silently, respectfully, unobtrusively.” Despite his usual good behavior, he attended military school during the summers—his parents thought it would be good for him.
Freel graduated in 1958 from Casper High School and soon entered Casper Community College as a classical music major in vocals. When his interest turned to the guitar, he was discouraged to pursue it as a major because the school did not consider it an acceptable instrument at the college. Freel’s breakthrough came at age 18 when Rupert Conrad, an art professor at Casper College, took him under his wing and took him on an art and cultural journey to Mexico. When Freel told Conrad that he considered him his mentor, he poignantly replied, “No Mirle, you have no mentor. You are your own mentor.” He then decided to switch to art, already well-versed in the basics of drawing and painting after four years of instruction at his high school’s impressive art program.
In 1965, after his time at Casper Community College, Freel enrolled at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in education with a minor in music. In 1966, he obtained a Master of Arts with an emphasis in painting and drawing. The art program at the University of Wyoming was rigorous, but Freel appreciated the many good instructors there, including Professor Richard Evans. To complete his master’s degree, Freel wrote two papers that became inspirational and influential in his own work. His first paper, “Realization in Art,” was a treatise on the works of British philosopher Sir Herbert Reed (1893–1968) and his ideas about art as a development of consciousness.
Freel’s second master’s thesis, “Fine Arts For the Blind,” led to a job after graduation at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, Iowa, where he developed a fine arts program for students from fourth grade through high school. During his time there, he taught drawing, painting, and sculpture to the blind as well as photography to the partially sighted. This experience profoundly affected how Freel looked at things around him and how he looked at art. He also developed approaches and techniques for drawing and painting based on tactile principles. Freel found it greatly rewarding when several of his students went on to compete in art shows at the local high school.
While in Vinton, he met Judy O’Toole, a fellow professor who was teaching history, civics, and comparative politics at Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, and the two became a couple and later married. Through Freel, O’Toole developed an interest in art, and while she had taken one art class before, Freel became her mentor. While they both engaged in art making, they also developed a passion for riding horses, and during all their subsequent moves, they brought their beloved horses with them. According to Freel, “Riding my horses took me to places I could photograph without the noise and confusion of the outer world. I love to walk and ride through space and time in the moment, in the now.”
Seeking advancement in his art career, Freel left his position at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School and moved to Iowa City to obtain a Master of Fine Arts degree, majoring in photography with a minor in filmmaking at the University of Iowa. During that time, he brought out the noted photographer Minor White for a symposium on White’s life’s work and interviewed him extensively for his thesis, “Minor White and Light.” After graduation in 1971, Freel took a teaching position at Huron College in Huron, South Dakota where he taught art and music for the first year, then art and art history for the next two years. It was an exciting time for the artist—he was involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM) when federal agents moved into Pine Ridge, South Dakota to quell the actions of the protestors. On one occasion, John Fire Lamedeer, the head medicine man for the Sioux, came to his home to speak with the local chapters of Native Americans who were united by Russell Means. He also did the photography and filmmaking for Eco-Ethnology of the High Plains Indians in collaboration with Adrian Hannus, which culminated in a still photography television show. At the request of Hannus and a Harvard anthropologist, he also filmed a program about how Indigenous tribes used the flint arrow to kill buffalo.
Within three years, he transferred to the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, where he became the head of the photography department until 1976, moving again to Herkimer County Community College (SUNY) to become Associate Professor until 1978. At Herkimer, Freel taught with Professor of Literary Arts Stephen Gurney, who wrote about Freel’s photography, exclaiming:
As Shelley’s lines emphasize, the world to Freel is like Plato’s cave, each image being a shadowy personification of some deep and indwelling spirit. Freel is a pure artist and possesses to a superabundant degree that quality of ‘negative capability’ which Keats ascribes to the highest art.
Freel’s wanderlust and curiosity inspired a move to Tucson in 1978. He and O’Toole found horse property on Ajo Way in the Southwest part of town. During that time, he worked at the Tucson Museum of Art (TMA) creating illustrations and overseeing the public relations for the institution. He also became the first full-time photography instructor at the TMA art school, working with John McNulty, who taught ceramics, and Renee Verdugo, a registrar, photographer, and painter. Even then, Freel’s work with the blind stood out during that time. He shared his research with John Kennedy, a PhD in psychology candidate who taught at Scarborough College in Toronto, Canada. In 1979, he met noted philosopher Rudolf Arnheim (who had seen his article on art for the blind), when Arnheim spoke at the Tucson Museum of Art as part of a city-wide Visiting Artist Consortium program. The two shared their research, which invigorated Freel’s interest in the subject, and that year he taught a workshop at the University of Arizona on art for the visually impaired. He also wrote and received a grant to develop a similar program at the university.
Freel continued to maintain his studio practice and a connection to teaching art to the visually impaired while working at TMA. He joined the Dinnerware Artspace in Tucson and became part of the artist community in southern Arizona. During that time, he focused on painting and photography of realistic subjects drawn from the lived experience, including portraits, architectural cityscapes, and figures in Tucson. He also continued to explore the idea of subconscious landscapes.
In 1979, he had a solo exhibition, A Sense of Form, at TMA, and continued to exhibit throughout the country. Freel felt at home in Tucson; to him it was uncrowded and a quintessential western small-scale town, perfect for keeping horses and pursuing his photography. Furthermore, he felt part of an art community that was on the rise. But Freel had more adventures to experience, and after two years, he accepted a position at Southwestern College in Creston Iowa, and remained there until 1987. During that time, he and O’Toole rode horses in the backcountry and played traditional polo and polocrosse, as they had done at each place they’d lived. While there, they also added fox hunting to their leisure activities.
Continually adventurous with career moves, in 1989, Freel accepted a position at the University of Great Falls, Montana, where he developed the four-year fine arts degree program and stayed for the next nine years. While in Montana, he created Western still lifes, non-objective acrylic paintings on canvas, and digital paintings. He also painted portraits and made graphite drawings as well as explored the subconscious through photographic constructions with light and ceramic sculpture. In addition, he began to illustrate two children’s books, authored by O’Toole, a project that continued after they left Montana.
After some time spent in Iowa to care for O’Toole’s parents, Freel retired from teaching in 2000 and the two returned to Tucson, where the warm weather and mountains called out to them. But while he had fond memories of Tucson and his experiences at TMA, he returned to a different city, far different than when he left. He still loved Tucson, but it was no longer a small, tight-knit art community; the city had grown and the cultural landscape along with it. They bought residential property in the Northwest part of town, just off Twin Peaks Road, and set up studios with their horse in a nearby stable. Since then, Freel has been painting and taking photographs with equal enthusiasm. According to Freel, “Painting influenced me greatly because it was my first degree. Drawing and painting influences how I think about photography.”
To make his paintings and photographs, Freel discovers still life vignettes in real life or sets up objects to control the composition. As well as the cities and landscapes of his homes over the years, he has also been inspired by his many travels, often on horseback, including places like Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Mexico, Canada, Jamaica, and all over the United States. Freel sees his work as an exploration of three minds: subconscious derivations and surrealist imagery, direct experience, and the manipulation of form, especially in non-objective and non-representational paintings. He also remains influenced by music, his first passion, and likens his nonobjective paintings to a musical score.
The selections of Freel’s photographs in this exhibition come from five series. One series is “Of and About Light,” in which natural light pours in from a window into an interior scene. In such works, light and shadow play important roles in the atmospheric mood and magical qualities of the composition. Another series focuses on interior still lifes photographed in Horetown, Ireland, on an equestrian estate. Freel prefers to allow intuition to guide his aesthetic choices in photography—works from this series were images he came upon, not set up with an agenda or statement. In this manner, the viewer experiences the chance encounters of the photographer in a shared sense of discovery. Still another series was shot in Tucson and focuses on light as it interacts with a woman swimming in a pool; she glides through the turquoise water that distorts her form and transforms it into abstraction. “The Mask” is the result of setting up props in a formal still life setting. This body of work was reviewed in “Arts of the American West,” in Art News magazine. The final series concentrates on the interplay between the reflective qualities of glass and the temporal nature of a butterfly. In these works, shadows play a crucial role in the visual intrigue of the composition.
Ultimately, Freel artistically answers to his own muse, letting serendipity guide his ideas. Finding beauty in the world around him, he expresses an inner mind at peace and a conscious mind that is inquisitive and poetic. The simplicity of his vision is reflected in his view of life. “I have no hidden agendas,” expresses Freel. “Life is a tricky road for me to navigate. My art, my partner Judy, my horses and dogs, fly fishing and the mountains and their inhabitants have been my steady life force.”
See the photographs of Mirle E. Freel, Jr. on view through August 29, 2021 in the Kenneth J. and Judith H. Riskind/ Patricia Carr Morgan and Peter F. Salomon Gallery at Tucson Museum of Art.
 Mirle E. Freel Jr., email message to author, June 23, 2020.
 Mirle E. Freel Jr., email message to author, June 23, 2020.
 Rupert Conrad quoted in an email message from Mirle E. Freel, Jr. to author, June 23, 2020. Other friends who have inspired Freel include Roger Camp, a photography professor with whom he taught at Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, and Rene Verdugo, a Tucson painter and photographer with whom he taught at the Tucson Museum of Art School in the 1970s.
 Freel’s fine arts program at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School was cited as one of the most innovative in Iowa and he is cited as one of the most innovative art instructors in The Iowa Alliance for Arts Education Newsletter. His research and teaching about art for the blind was published in the journal Education of the Visually Handicapped in May 1969.
 Freel vividly recalls the filming of this program because the anthropologist ran out to see the result of the kill without realizing that buffalo circle their dead. This put him in imminent danger until a rancher who owned the herd broke up the circle with his truck. Mirle E. Freel, Jr., email message to author, June 23, 2020.
 Stephen Gurney, unpublished statement used in promotional materials by the artist, 1976.
 John McNulty eventually became the TMA’s museum store manager and worked there for more than 30 years.
 Ceramicist Barbara Grygutis was one of the prominent artists who worked at Dinnerware Artspace in the late 1970s. When the Temple of Music and the Arts held a large retrospective of Dinnerware artists, Freel was included in the exhibition.
 University of Great Falls, Montana, became the University of Providence in 2017.
 Mirle E. Freel, Jr., email message to author, June 23, 2020.
 Mirle E. Freel, Jr., email message to author, June 23, 2020.