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Take Five: Tom Friedman on art from sugar cubes, yarn and tin foil

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 7, 2011 - You wouldn't think that an artist whose media include bubble gum, Styrofoam and spaghetti would have trouble finding materials. But just recently Tom Friedman found out that the only source for the exact-size sugar cubes he used in a 1999 self-portrait was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.

Luckily for Friedman, the New Orleans sugar factory reopened just in time to produce enough cubes for a recreated piece after the original had begun to melt.

Making things out of kitchen staples and other household items may sound like child's play. But it's a life's work for the St. Louis native, who has exhibited and sold his whimsical wares all over the globe.

On Friday, April 8, the alumni association of his alma mater John Burroughs will present the conceptual artist with the 2011 Outstanding Alumnus Award. That evening, an exhibition of his work, curated by local collector and fellow Burroughs alum Jim Probstein, will open at the school.

Friedman, who graduated from Burroughs in 1983 and now lives in Leverett, Mass., told the Beacon that his work stems from philosophical inspirations but also has a sense of fun.

Where do you get your ideas?

Friedman: It all started with an interest in philosophy that led to an interest in Eastern philosophy, which is kind of a Buddhist philosophy. It worked well for me because it had to do with self-exploration. But my work is very playful and I'm trying to create a mutual experience so my work has a sense of humility, so that it's not like it's saying, "Look at me, you asshole." It's trying to be much more equal and not overpowering -- the playing is important for that.

Take the trash can piece, with a garbage can that I was using in the studio. That happened after I went through a divorce. So it was kind of like I was throwing myself away for a new beginning; it's kind of a cathartic piece. And it's not just a negative thing, but a new beginning, when you think about that the legs are making a "V" for victory.

You've done a number of self-portraits. Why?

Friedman: That grew out of an old tradition of artists doing self-portraits, that sense of having images of the maker and answering the question, "Who is the author of these piece?" Usually in a show I would have one self-portrait to define the other pieces, and to lead people to see where I was coming from. It's like when I listen to music or read a book, I like to know when the author lived, and where he or she grew up.

What's the significance of the materials you use?

Friedman: Using everyday materials is a way of connecting with people. Not a lot of people may have had an experience with traditional art materials, but these familiar materials have meaning for them. Yet, I've transformed the materials, and that can lead them to ask how and why did it go from here to there.

What impact did your Burroughs education have on your career?

Friedman: I think that my appreciation of Burroughs is more in retrospect now that I have three kids who are 2, 13 and 16. I was pretty socially inept at Burroughs, probably like most people, and I pretty much spent most of my free time in the art building.

The facilities were so amazing, and, often, no one else was there and I could play around. That became my studio. Every day I went to the art building and did something and that momentum just kept going up until today. If there weren't facilities in my high school that allowed me to do that, then who knows if that momentum would have even developed?

Also I realized later how prepared I was for things I had to do even as an artist, such as having to write and think critically. And the work ethic of Burroughs is really incredible. People describe me as having a Midwestern work ethic, but it's more of a Burroughs work ethic.

Is there anyone in St. Louis that you'd like to give shout out to?

Friedman: All the people I know from St. Louis, I still talk with. But I do want to thank Jimbo and Dorte Probstein. Jimbo was one of my best friends from Burroughs, and when he met his wife Dorte, who is involved in the arts, they became very interested in my work. They have accumulated a nice collection, and they're very supportive of me.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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