The idea for the Absolute Zero Project came to him a number of years ago, but he only began to seriously consider it in 2007, the year his 12-year relationship with his wife fell apart. It was then that Freeland started renting rooms in Davis and Inman Squares and was "floating by" on little jobs, thinking he should do "something life affirming, something that would teach me about myself."
Thus, in addition to choosing Austin as his destination (because it was warm and "culturally developed," he says), he also assigned himself certain rules by which he'd need to abide. According to the note he published on his Web site announcing the project, he would not be able to “stay in the same place for more than three days on end.” Neither could he accept charity nor sell his art to family or friends met prior to the trip. The rules were intended to keep his journey interesting and challenging, as well as to make sure he didn't get too complacent while there. Because being homeless is, apparently for some, not enough of a challenge.
A sketch and a beer
The newly broke Freeland carried everything he had to his name when his plane touched down at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on October 8 last year. This included a sweater, an additional pair of socks, a fake leather jacket, a pre-paid Skype phone and charger, and a digital camera in order to document his journey.
"My initial response was, 'Is this guy gonna make it?' " says INsite journalist Marsha Mann, who met him at the airport that day after getting wind of his story. "Or is there some kind of weird death wish here?"
The next few days proved the most difficult. Freeland did manage to barter for a few items (art supplies, a Swiss-army knife, etc.), as well as to make the acquaintance of a bartender named Doug, who traded him a beer for a sketch. But because he was mostly crashing outside, he had gotten little to no sleep since arriving. He also had very few options when it came to keeping himself clean, which concerned him — part of his survival depended on the way he presented himself to people he approached.
On his third day, Freeland caught a break when a couple took an interest. "First, the guy bought a sketch," recalls the artist. "Well, he traded me a flashlight and cologne — he thought that was funny, because I was like the Wildman of Borneo by then."
The joker returned though, buying a painting for $60, which Freeland used to procure his first good night of sleep at a youth hostel.
As word spread about the project, Freeland began finding people willing to host him in exchange for a painting. One woman made him swab down with vinegar before entering her apartment. Another (less anal) host had him over for Thanksgiving with her family.
As for food, he found that he could live for a stretch on $2 worth of bulk oatmeal from Whole Foods. Sometimes, he artistically chalked up coffee-stand blackboards in exchange for baked goods.
As he got deeper into the experiment the city began to look very different from when he first arrived. "It was a creepy feeling when it's getting dark and you know you're gonna have to sleep soon," recalls Freeland of his first few days. "I would pass these signs and hope that I don't get completely lost."