Donald Munro

Farmworkers focus of thoughtful, beautiful Fresno Art Museum show

Richard Freitas, with his oil painting “Carrot Picker” has his first solo show “Promise Land,” at the Fresno Art Museum.
Richard Freitas, with his oil painting “Carrot Picker” has his first solo show “Promise Land,” at the Fresno Art Museum.

There are layers upon layers in the central San Joaquin Valley-inspired farmworker paintings of Richard G. Freitas in his new show at the Fresno Art Museum.

First, a coating of gesso to prepare the wooden canvas. A second layer, drawn with burnt twig, sketching in the outlines of the subject matter. A third, the all-important “underpainting,” a layer of muted color, sets the tonal range for the work. Glazing (varnish mixed with pigment) follows, which helps give the painting that subtle luster that makes you feel as if you can fall into it.

And, lastly, the fifth layer, the “overpainting,” in which small details – onions in a field, the orange-yellow sheen of a bunch of carrots, a belt on a farmworker – are added to the image. These highlights feel as if they almost float in front of the work, adding to the sense of depth and dimension.

It’s the same general technique used in the 16th and 17th centuries by such Old Masters as Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Though Freitas winces at a comparison with such names – “I’m embarrassed to be mentioned with them,” he says – he has a deep and abiding passion for the way they painted: their assertive yet carefully controlled color palettes; their triumphant use of light; their ability to give a quiet dignity and presence to their subjects.

“These kinds of paintings have a depth and a translucence and a vibe that modern painting can’t match,” he says.

There are layers to Freitas’ story, too. Considering his technical skill and the confidence with which he paints, you might expect that at age 55 he would be boasting of a long career (and plenty of solo exhibitions) on his resume.

Instead, “Promise Land” is his first solo show. He didn’t even go “public” with any of his work until last year, when he picked up a Best in Show award in the Fresno Arts Council’s “Arts Alive in Agriculture” juried exhibition.

Then Michele Ellis Pracy, the new executive director and chief curator of the Fresno Art Museum, saw his work and decided to give Freitas his own solo museum exhibition, part of her plan to increase exposure for talented underrecognized artists.

In the art world, a solo show in a museum any size is a big deal – something that many artists work toward their entire careers.

Here’s another layer for you: As co-owner of the well-known catering company Love and Garlic, Freitas has made his living preparing fancy food for 30 years. (He isn’t in the community spotlight the way his wife of three decades, Nancy Vajretti, whose vision has guided the company, often is.) As a young man he thought of going on to school. Instead, love (and garlic, and the opportunity to help run a business) intervened. He came from a farming family, and as a caterer, he still found himself deeply connected with the world of food.

He’s very good at what he does. He learned to be.

“I can cook 400 steaks to perfection from the first person to the last person who gets the steak,” he says.

He applied that discipline when he decided to learn to paint in the Italian Renaissance style. His first artistic interest was in sculpture and pottery. When he got bitten by the painting bug 15 years ago, he started taking lessons with master teacher Franco Covino. Once a year, he traveled to Oregon to spend a week in intensive sessions.

Two years ago, Covino told him he was ready to venture out on his own.

People often talk of talent and inspiration when it comes to painting. Freitas agrees those attributes are important, but in his soft-spoken way, he is a fierce proponent of the idea that art is also about hard work and diligence. “I could teach you, or anyone, how to paint in this style if you were willing to spend the time,” he tells me.

Now for the most important layer when it comes to Freitas’ work: his empathy for the subject matter.

All the paintings in the exhibition have Valley themes, including a beautiful landscape titled “Promise Land” depicting a placid view near his hometown of Los Banos in which the sky glows with a muted, transcendent complexity. But the newer works, painted especially for this show, are of field workers.

Hundreds of years ago, painters in this style would work from sketches. Freitas used old black-and-white photographs, pre-1945, that he found in the public domain.

In his “Carrot Picker,” a man stands with a freshly dug bunch of carrots, displaying it not as some sort of prize or oddity but a simple product of his work.

Raised on a dairy farm until the age of 23, Freitas lived a life of agriculture. He’s picked in the fields, driven a tractor, milked a cow. He knows how hard the work is. He also understands the primeval bond between humans and the food they grow.

“The farmer and the ground have a promise they make to each other,” he says.

In this sense, you could compare him to another great artist: the French painter Jean-François Millet, who shocked the art world in 1857 when he painted his great work “The Gleaners,” depicting three peasant women in a field picking up stray bits of grain, each stooped in back-breaking labor. Millet’s focus on the peasant class instead of heroic themes was shocking.

Again, Freitas demurs when compared with another great name from art history. But in his painting “The Hoers,” depicting farmworkers stooped over using short hoes in the field, you get a sense of that same physical toil – and the same celebration of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

There is acknowledgment in Freitas’ paintings of the people who work the fields. Not glorification. For him, that makes all the difference.

He might have started painting a little later than some. But in a life of experiences, he’s added one layer on top of another. And we get to appreciate the result.

Richard G. Freitas: Promise Land