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William Freeman OAM

Landscape Painter in Oils on Board

Bill Freeman OAM and his family live in the shadow of Purple Hill, Minmi, with a creek running by… perfect setting for this creator of fine art.  His studio is purpose built so that there is plenty of natural light and a pleasant vies out of the windows onto his beloved gardens.  Bill is a humble, sincere, down to earth man who loves the sea, the bush, old houses and people – not only loves them, but is able to capture them superbly on canvas.

In 1994 Bill Freeman won the “Dobell Art Prize”…the most respected art prize in the Hunter Valley.  That’s not surprising; he’s a great artist.  What surprised me was that he won with a painting that was hanging on the walls of Morpeth Gallery.

If you were like me you would think that an artist entering a competition like the Dobell Art Prize would enter a special painting…one that he has spent extra time on.  A painting that was better than any that he had ever done before: An extra good painting…Not so.

In fact Bill just telephoned me and said, “I have been asked to enter in the Dobell competition and because I have nothing finished could I come up and take the painting that you have in the Gallery”.  I said, “Sure”.  It was titled, “Early Morning, Yaccabah”.  You may have even been lucky enough to see this painting in the gallery.  So Bill collected his painting, and off it went to Wangi Wangi.  Next thing Bill is on the phone to say he had won.

What this means is that your Bill Freeman painting could just as easily have been the painting that won the Dobell Art Prize.  To Bill every painting he does has to be the best.  Otherwise he destroys it and starts again.  That’s the sort of uncompromising person that he is.  It is the first time that he has entered any contest for many a year.  He only entered this art prize because a friend was running it and had asked Bill to enter as a special favour.  These days you will see Bill judging the art prize and many other art competitions throughout the district. 

Bill has never been an artist to chase accolades…but they have followed him nevertheless.  In fact it was only at the insistence of others that he entered the prestigious Dobell competition. 

Bill Freeman was also a great friend of artist Sir William Dobell and he spent many hours with this great artist.

Bill said “He gave me lots of advice over the years, such as if I painted a chook, bird etc. in a scene, there had to be three, five or seven”.

You can sit and talk to Bill Freeman for hours as he recounts fascinating stories of his friendship with the other Bill (Dobell).

One day Dobell asked Bill for a lift down to the pub. He asked, “Why don’t you drive yourself? Dobell replied: ‘The Jaguar is completely wrapped in blankets in the garage and it’s too much trouble to get it out”.

“He had other traits such as not wanting to bank a cheque. Consequently, when he passed away a considerable amount of money in cheques was found not presented.”

Bill Freeman is your average bush bloke, friendly, down‑to‑earth with an unassuming nature, one who never fails to be amazed at how his work is constantly in demand.

His reputation as a realist artist goes before him despite the fact he’s only ever held five exhibitions in his long, distinguished career.  He says he is only doing what comes naturally ‑ painting from the heart and soul, instinctively from life.  Yet the affable artist avoids any hint of pretension as he discusses his long career of some 67 plus years.

The demand for commissioned works continually grows and grows, even though he’s now supposedly ‘semi‑retired’.  I paint because I simply love it, not so much for the money,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve sold works to State Premier’s wives, well‑known identities and have more paintings than I know hanging overseas, especially in Canada. Once I had one fellow arrive in a cab from Sydney on the off‑chance I was home. He knocked on the door and asked if I had an available painting for sale. Lucky for him I did. He bought it and hopped back in the cab for the return trip.

His first ever art exhibition was at the age of 15, and even then it was a sell out.  It was then that he decided to become a full time artist.

“Actually, I have never really painted for dollars, yet I’ve had countless generous offers to do so over the years. We always had enough to get by on,”

Bill, a traditionalist at heart, recalled how a Sydney gallery once asked him if he could paint modern abstract works.

I told him of course I could,” said Bill I turned out three paintings within a couple of hours and they loved them. Then I shocked them by saying they were not for sale and I was throwing them right in the fire. To me they were not art in the real sense, and I never painted another.

Bill Freeman is an artist who paints from the heart and captures images we know and recognise, which accounts for his popularity.

There’s no need for interpretation: Australian landscapes, seascapes, mountains, trees, portraits of real people and especially historic buildings flow across the canvas as he works in his home studio overlooking the picturesque garden he and his wife Dawn have created around their Minmi home.

In 1995 he started painting a special exhibition of buildings around Minmi.  These paintings were composed from sketches made as a youngster when Bill would roam the streets and lanes around Minmi recording the structures in his faithful sketch book.  No other person has records of the many buildings that once made up the busy mining town of Minmi.

The exhibition captured the thriving coal town at the turn of the 19th Century. One person acquired the entire works so Bill had to put together a second exhibition of the remaining structures that he had not had time to paint.  This was combined with the first group of paintings to make a show of paintings that depicted the entire town and thousands of ex Minmi people came to view this historic event.

In 1997, ‘The Rise & Fall of Minmi’ was held at Morpeth Gallery, again depicting the history of the town of Minmi.

The entire sixty‑three works in the collection sold within twenty minutes.

Bills house and studio is built on a block of land in Minmi that his grandfather selected.  Bill says:  “My grandfather, Samuel Freeman, was a Newcastle sail maker, an extremely talented sign writer with a copper plate handwriting, and an artist,” said Bill.

“He walked from Newcastle to Minmi to purchase this block and built a modest home by the winding creek on the border and each generation of Freeman has built their own home on this block.”

Minmi was once a flourishing and prosperous mining town, owned by coal owners John and Alexander Brown who employed more than five hundred miners. Minmi at one time boasted eleven hotels and a school with over one thousand pupils.

As a youngster, Bill can recall that the urge to draw and paint was one he just couldn’t resist. Looking back, there’s no doubt his natural talent and ability came from a genetic inheritance from his grandfather Samuel.

“My father, like others at the time, was not well‑off, and he built his home, in which I was born, of rough‑hewn bush timber nailed with 6′ nails.

“Times were tough and I sold rabbits for 6d, caught in traps we set around the area. In those days everyone looked out for each other.

“Whenever l could, l would escape into the bush around Minmi with my slate and sketch the surrounding trees and buildings, always in fear that Dad would catch me and find me some work,” he recalled.

“Dad said I would never be any good at it (painting)”.

Only hard physical work would feed you, was his belief.

Sadly, his father never lived to see that eventually Bill did earn a good living from art to support a wife and two children.

“I left school at sixth class to become a stock cutter at a clothing factory in Newcastle,” said Bill”. “After two years, I realised that it cost me 18/- ­in fares and l only earned 21/‑. So I bought a bike and paid it off at 2/‑ a week and rode to work and Mum took the rest.

I then went timber cutting with Dad. It was hard physical work; however the urge to sketch was forever present, especially when I saw a day‑breaking scene dappled in the right light.

“Cutting timber and stripping bark was tough and the wages were low. I’d work till dark then come home and paint till 1am in the morning. My paintings started selling and commissions started flowing in.

Bill prefers to paint in oils as he finds this medium more challenging than watercolours.

Throughout his career as an artist he has painted just about every historic building in Minmi: the old houses, pubs and slab huts as well as some of the panoramic streetscapes of the old town.

Famous racehorses have posed for his canvas, one being ‘Luskinstar’, on two occasions.

When not painting Bill is often busy creating new garden beds for Dawn, as they both find their garden a mutual source of enjoyment and relaxation.

“When l can, I love to go off fishing and in my time I have worn out six deep sea boats fishing off Hawks Nest,” Bill added.

Bill’s Minmi of yesteryear has changed as he remembers it.

The Minmi Hotel built by William Cork is the sole remaining hotel trading in town and across on the hill is the original Minmi Police Station and Courthouse, now a restaurant and function centre.

Times have certainly changed, however the likes of Bill Freeman will ensure that Minmi will retain its quality as a special place because special people like him live there: easy to know, understand, caring and kind.

Freeman’s legacy to Minmi Township hangs throughout the country in homes of the people who purchased a Freeman artwork ‑ a piece of the historic town of Minmi.

A rare collection came together again from all over Australia at Maitland Regional Gallery in September 2005, with a retrospect exhibition entitled “The Spirit of Minmi”.

Exhibition organiser, Trevor Richards of Morpeth Gallery, at the time of the exhibition said: Very few artists are given the opportunity to have an entire collection of their work shown at a regional gallery.

“As a result of this exhibition Bill Freeman’s name has gone into the national records as a regional exhibition worthy of artistic statesmanship.

“This also means that the particular paintings that are to be exhibited also gain considerable providence.”

Bill Freeman will continue to paint for as long as he lives ‑ it’s an obsession with which he was born.

In 2008 Bill Freeman was given and OAM for his services to art.  Bill set up the Society of Hunter Valley Artists, he has been extremely generous to many causes in donating paintings to raise money over many years, and he has judged and mentored many art shows.