In Jill Friedberg’s studio, located just steps away from her home in northern Scottsdale, Friedberg flicks on the lights, revealing a room full of paintings.
Some are completely finished, while others require a touch up or two before they’re put on display for her upcoming solo exhibition, “Fantasy for a Noble Universe,” at Herberger Art Gallery in Phoenix on Dec. 6.
“This is called ‘Crossing,’” Friedberg gestures toward a 37”-by-36” painting portraying a father carrying his child on his back, both of whom are looking off, past a river and toward three towering walls inspired by three very different cultures: American, Asian and Latin.
“My wall is different than other people’s walls because it’s very multicultural,” she said, specifying that one wall is the Supreme Court.
Friedberg grew up in a household in Chicago where multiculturalism was wholly embraced and travel was a priority. She has seen – and captured – her fair share of the world, from Rajasthan, India and Quito, Ecuador to Michoacán, Mexico and the Iguazu Falls in Brazil.
And over the past 30 years as an artist, Friedberg has amassed over 12,000 images from her travels, many of which can already be found or will eventually find their way into each of her mixed media pieces.
“I save thousands and thousands and thousands of images thinking, ‘One day I’ll use that,’” she said. “These are all places I’ve been. These are all mine.”
Friedberg manipulates her photography, working them into anywhere from 20 to 30 layers to create a narrative, a process that can take upwards of six months. She then flattens those layers, prints the final product on canvas, paints onto the photograph and integrates repurposed materials both onto the painting and into the artwork’s frame.
“What I’m doing is manipulating my photography,” Friedberg said. “Some of them call for more repurposed materials, some less.”
Friedberg doesn’t only hoard countless photographs.
Scattered throughout her studio, which she and her husband moved into 10 years ago from Chicago, are baskets filled to the brim with scraps of linen in varying shades and patterns. She even has a closet full of textiles and other wild and unexpected repurposed materials.
“A snake dropped his skin by my door,” Friedberg said, adding that she added snake skin to the frame of “In Pursuit,” another painting in her upcoming exhibition. “I don’t like snakes, but he left his skin, and I thought, ‘I’ll use you.’”
Bark, laundry lint, seeds and metal beads, feathers, horse hair, pencil and paint shavings – nothing’s off limits.
Friedberg even has a three-dimensional bust using repurposed materials, including buttons, textiles, felt, features, fabric and, most notably, her late mother’s jacket. The interior of the bust, titled “Mother Comforts,” is lined with Friedberg’s mother’s bathrobe, too.
“That was my mother, and my mother was really supportive and loving, but it’s also me. She influenced me,” Friedberg said.
Of the 59 group exhibitions and 16 solo exhibitions in which she has taken part, “Fantasy for a Noble Universe” is her most personal exhibition to date.
“It makes me almost want to cry because it means so much to me,” she said, her eyes welling up slightly. “Home is very important to me and making a home, so you don’t see family in this, but my family is in this, and the world is my family.”
“Fantasy for a Noble Universe” tackles three themes – environment, climate change and cultural diversity – and how she feels they affect the world.
The artist statement for the exhibition is: “‘Fantasy for a Noble Universe’ expresses my concern over our chaotic world, a world in which the diversity of humanity and endangered nature struggle to symbiotically enhance the enrichment of our existence.”
For example, in “Fauna Farewell,” a photomontage with acrylic paint, laundry lint and glass bead gel, framed photographs of animal life are hung in the opulent palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. The painting tackles extinction head on.
“We are at the point where you read about 2040 and how nature’s threatened and some people are denying it and some of them aren’t taking action. Is it going to be that somebody we’ll just have things like in a museum setting stuffed or framed, or are we doing to do something about it?” Friedberg asked. “Are we going to have to preserve what’s left in one safe place or in different safe places?”
And while many of her pieces tackle the concept of home, she takes it one step further, using a home-shaped canvas for a few of her pieces.
“It represents home, it represents us, and it represents a safe place,” Friedberg said.
While Friedberg’s pieces do tackle pressing issues, each piece also merges cultures.
In “The Grass is Greener,” a photomontage with acrylic paint, glass beads, seeds, stones, moss, rice paper, fabric yarn and tar gel, several cultures – from Africa and Japan to Norway, India and Chicago – are present, coexisting in one courtyard.
“I love her,” Friedberg said, pointing at the young black girl striking a pose front and center. “I was in Chicago on Michigan Avenue, and she was with her mother, who was carrying a bouquet of roses, and she had probably just come from a recital. I just thought she was beautiful.”
“Grass is Greener” is idealistic, but, for Friedberg, it’s also hopeful.
“When I see that room full of people and then I put them together, that makes me really happy,” she said. “That’s my idealistic dream, and I know it’s idealistic, but it’s colorful and it makes me happy, and I really hope it goes somewhere where somebody feels that, too.”
“Fantasy” is Friedberg’s symphony and her way of helping to “pass on the empathy.”
“One day, I was listening to classical music and the title of the piece was ‘Fantasy for…’ and I thought, ‘I love that. I have to use that as part of my title,’” she said. “And ‘a Noble Universe’ to me is one in which we appreciate one another and we understand how important our natural world is. That, to me, is a noble universe, and I’m embracing all of that in this fantasy I’ve created.”
Friedberg is an alumna of Northwestern University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work can be found in eight collections across the country, including the archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., where her most recent art can be found.
“I took an Amazon box and I painted into that with scenes from Latin America, a protest I had seen in Mexico,” she said.
Friedberg explained that that piece was included in a collection curated by the Phoenix Art Museum. All of the pieces tackled themes of utopia and dystopia.
“The Phoenix Art Museum managed to save the whole exhibition and it went into a collection into the archives of the Smithsonian,” she said.
In the end, Friedberg doesn’t create art for herself. She creates each piece hoping they’ll find the right forever home.
“I like knowing that my work has homes,” she said.