We are at the studio of artist Mallorie Freeman in Asiatown. "Fire Fish is coming up in October," she says. Fire Fish, spearheaded by James Levin and Joan Perch, is a festival held in Lorain, where Freeman and artistic partner Sean Jason Kelly are two of many artists creating installations in vacant store fronts and vacant spaces. The idea is to bring people in to Lorain to see something more than empty lots and abandoned buildings. At the end of the festival, children create a giant fish that they float down the river and set on fire.
"It was a great experience for me," Freeman says of last year's fest. "I love doing installations. We had never worked together before Rooms to Let and we didn't care who came or if it was seen; we just wanted to work on an installation together and it was great." This year Freeman and Kelly will be participating again. "We're thinking potentially chocolate, dead animals, potentially hair ... we're just going to let it evolve naturally because he's a natural evolver with his work and I am a planner, so we're going to meet in the middle and make something."
Quickly we switch gears on the conversation and find ourselves rooting through layers of photos on her coffee table. "We're going to listen to the Thunderball soundtrack," states Freeman as she places the vinyl on her record player. As Tom Jones warbles through the speaker, Freeman gets down to brass tacks about the subject of her next series of work: the pop songstress Mer-Lyn, who also happens to be the artist's mother; and, as you might have guessed, the photos on the coffee table are all Mer-Lyn.
Freeman begins her pitch: "The concept behind this work is my own perception: imagined and remembered or hazy memories; recollections; and through stories from my family, my mother's singing career. She never talked about it. It was unspoken. I held on to it for a while and I didn't want to talk about it. I wasn't ready to tell that story and then I started looking at the pictures and someone gave me a photo album, and I was like ... yeah. Gonna need to tell this story."
The artist had never seen some of the photos of Mer-Lyn, but she knew she had to paint them in some capacity. Soon she was talking about her mom more and started really digging into research about her when she found her 45 record on Ebay. Then the moment of clarity set in where she realized that there are more people in the world that know things about Mer-Lyn. The record she had found turned out to cost $200. She didn't buy that one, but then found someone who was selling 100 45s for $100. "So I emailed the guy and I told him that there is one record he has that was my mother and that guy let me buy it for $10."
Mer-Lyn's career had her touring nightclubs around the country. A flyer for Toby's Oak Grove in Lafayette, Louisiana, describes her as "a petite young songstress on her first supper club tour ... . Though small in stature, she wails and belts out a song with a big strong voice. Her stage presence is just the right touch of coquettish innocence mixed with downright sexual charisma that tugs at the heart and minds of every red blooded guy in the room."
She used to sing at the Versailles Penthouse Club near East 55th and Euclid, which was a hotel that had a nightclub. Freeman also revealed that the racketeer, Paul "Skinny" D'Amato, "Mr. Atlantic City" himself, wrote a book about the 500 Club and her mother was mentioned in that.
"They used to refer to my mom as the Oriental Songstress," Freeman says. Finding this bit of information added fuel to the fire, further pushing her pursuit.
We start listening to an all-female group named the Tokyo Happy Coats that Mer-Lyn would occasionally team up with and then to more of the songstress herself. As we listened to her voice belting through the studio, we spoke of parental death and the chrysalis into adulthood we unwillingly inherit. We expound on the mystery of who our parents really are and how we construct our memories of who they were before we entered the scene,
"She was singing before I was born," says Freeman. "She wanted to end her career because she wanted to have a family, because she was tired of touring 24/7. It felt like she had no life. She was plucked right out of high school and graduated on the road."
Freeman's determination for this latest work is just a sample of her artistic ethos. She is a strong visual artist known for her hyper-attention to detail and painstaking care through the development of her work, whether it be through her pulp fictional-style paintings or her famed "tumble weaves" series, in which she gathered abandoned wigs and weaves from the streets of Cleveland, cleaned them with care and created prints based on the mystery behind them. Freeman next will be giving Mer-Lyn her due and we look forward to the big reveal.
You can follow the artist on Instagram @malloriefreemanart or visit her website at malloriefreeman.com.