STARVING ARTIST: Bostonian Russell Freeland lived on the streets of Austin for one year, peddling art for food and lodging.
Three years ago, Russell Freeland had what most would consider a settled life. He was working at Harvard University and was financially comfortable enough to own an expensive condo with his wife in the Boston area. Just two years later, though, Freeland was hungry, exhausted, and homeless, trying to survive in Austin, Texas. The 39 year old found himself sleeping in full public view — on bus-stop benches, along the Colorado River — and worrying for his safety.
"I just felt very vulnerable," says Freeland, "like anybody could come up and kick me in the head because they thought I had something."
His is a disturbing saga, where every sunset stimulated fears about where he might take sanctuary for the evening, and where even finding refuge in safer, out-of-the-way grassy fields had its own traumatic consequences, such as the hungry bugs who had their way with him as he dozed. But it wasn't the sudden turn in the economy that put our subject out on the street, nor were his circumstances similar to those of the thousands of other homeless people in this country.
Freeland's predicament was entirely of his own making. Pursuing a self-imposed assignment called the "Absolute Zero Project," the abstract artist had given away or sold all of his possessions — including his money — and boarded a plane at Logan bound for Austin, a city to which he had never before traveled, and where he knew no one. In the Texas capital, he vowed to live solely off of his art — selling and trading it for sundry goods as well as places to stay.
It was a brave, perhaps insane experiment, one that Freeland partially attributes to a desire to challenge himself artistically. After all, the sheer number of works he was going to have to produce, realistically — just to stay alive — would be considerable.
But his journey also had a spiritual component. "I had an overwhelming desire to strip down to the core essentials of who I am," he told INsite magazine, an Austin-based publication, once word got out about his experiment, "someone who's good at making things and someone who does his best to be kind to the people he comes into contact with."
The question was: in our modern world, would these qualities be enough to let him survive?
"A lot of time, I just feel asleep day to day," confides Freeland now, comfortably back in Allston after nearly a year on the edge in Texas. "You know what I'm saying? You're not putting anything to the test — you're just living."
The Hawaiian-born artist, who sometimes goes by the art handle "Rocduv," has dark blond hair and a fondness for sunglasses and collared shirts. You might know his work from the countless sidewalk paintings he's done in neighborhoods throughout Boston with his pal Robert Guillemin, a/k/a Sidewalk Sam. The two are part of Art Street, Inc., in Newton, a nonprofit organization that creates populist art events.