The saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is perhaps outdated and overused, but it’s the perfect descriptor for Island artist Althea Freeman-Miller. Laurie Miller, Freeman-Miller’s late father, was a logo designer and an oil painter. Some of his work is probably pretty recognizable to people in the Island community. He designed the Mermaid Farm shirt, the Aquinnah Shop logo, and many more logos for Island businesses. Leslie Freeman, Althea’s mom, owned a popular children’s clothing shop, where she created a successful line of children’s clothing using hand-block printing. Currently, Leslie Freeman is a professional potter.
Artists are often told that it’s impossible to make a living as a creative. And it is true that being a full-time artist isn’t always easy — it requires some bravery and tenacity — but there are many successful artists who were inspired by their parents, or by teachers who believed in them, and the power of creativity. “I was lucky. My parents were always supportive of my art, and I grew up watching them making a living as artists,” Freeman-Miller said.
”When I’m talking to kids about becoming an artist, I always tell them to try everything, and not worry too much about what they want to focus on yet. When you’re in art school, you have access to all kinds of equipment,” Freeman-Miller said. “Printmaking has always been my thing, and I was lucky to have had access to printmaking equipment. I mostly do linoleum block printing, using oil-based ink on paper. I also have a laser engraver, so I make laser-engraved, hand-painted wood cutouts.”
Freeman-Miller’s first studio was located in the Workshop Gallery in Vineyard Haven. “For the first four years, I was doing all the artisan shows, the Chilmark Flea Market, and First Fridays,” Freeman-Miller said. “But the gallery owner of the place I’m located in now, Althea Designs, moved out and encouraged me to move in. So I did! The first year, I shared the space with another artist, and had multiple artists who sold in the studio. But then COVID hit, and it was just me. I said to myself, ‘Well, what’s better for an artist than to have a bunch of space to work in?’
Having a studio space is such a gift for artists, whether that space is in their home, or in a separate dwelling. Sure, if the urge to create is strong enough, artists will work in their hall closet if necessary, but having a designated space to explore, play, and work in is invaluable. Having a separate space to house all the paint, ink, Gumby and Pokey bendables, pencils, bags of glass eyeballs, paper, brushes, forgotten coffee cups, and erasers is also a godsend. The downside to having a studio space to yourself is that it can be isolating.
“Aside from not having the energy from other artists, another issue of being the only artist in the studio is that I can’t be in two places at one time,” Freeman-Miller said. “This summer was great. A woman from Connecticut found my art online and asked if she could do an internship with me. She got a grant to come work for me for the whole summer. She was amazing. She’d come in and print while I was at shows. People would stop in the studio, ask questions, and watch the process. She inspired me for sure. She wanted to do something, and she found a way to do it.”
This kind of perseverance is a perfect example of how one survives as an artist. And Freeman-Miller has certainly done so. “I want to show artists that they can make a life full of art for themselves. It is possible. I see the value of art, and I’m very interested in inspiring people to use art for creative wellness,” Freeman-Miller said. “I’m creating various art-focused wellness programs where I can share my story. What I do is so joyful. I know it could be inspirational to someone else.”
Freeman-Miller’s passion for art has also sparked an interest in town planning. “Vineyard Haven is already an art hub in some ways, but Tisbury is working on a Master Plan to redesign the town. They asked people from the community to share what they value, and what they would want our community to be like in the future,” Freeman-Miller said. “Going to those meetings was such a great opportunity to share my dream of what could happen creatively.”
Freeman-Miller is on to something. Commerce, culture, and town government all work together. Tourists seek out unique experiences when discovering a new place, and art is a big draw. SoWa, located in the south end of Boston, is a great example of this. As the Art and Design district, SoWa is bustling with restaurants, artist studios, galleries, and boutiques that are housed in various warehouse buildings. (See sowaboston.com/sowa-open-market.) Anderson Alley in Rochester, N.Y., is another prime example of a thriving arts center. Formerly a shoe factory, Anderson Alley is now a community of artists with studios on the second, third, and fourth floors of the Anderson Arts Building, located in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts (andersonalleyartists.com).
“I’m excited to be involved in the plans for Vineyard Haven. When I joined the Business Association, they asked me if I had ideas for events. I knew that First Fridays were happening all over the county,” Freeman-Miller said. “So I brought up the idea. A few people had never heard of First Fridays, and now we’re doing them.”
For those not in the know, First Fridays often include art gallery and museum openings, gallery hops, and art walks that occur on the first Friday of each month. These events provide an opportunity for people to view and purchase art, talk with various artists, and meet new people. It’s not surprising that Freeman-Miller helped to bring First Fridays to the Island. Artists can be powerful advocates for their communities, highlighting social issues, promoting diversity and inclusion, and inspiring people to take action and create positive change.
“I’m the president of the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District (VHHCD), and Phil Wallis is chairman. I manage, and Phil leads policy planning and fundraising. We have a great group of people who meet regularly, and we’re looking forward to creating public art and bringing more opportunities to artists in town. It’s exciting. There are lots of opportunities for dream pulling. When I’m making art, I’m processing things about the community, and while I’m processing, I try to make something beautiful,” Freeman-Miller says.
What’s new and what’s coming up: Airbrush artist Jonah Miller has moved into Althea Designs studio, and offers custom airbrush T shirts and murals. Visit Althea Design on open studio days, Thursdays to Saturdays, 10 am to 3 pm, or by appointment. You can find Freeman-Miller at the Vineyard Artisan Thanksgiving show, Christmas in Edgartown, and various First Fridays. To learn more, visit altheadesigns.com, or stop by her studio at 34 Beach Road in Vineyard Haven.