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A Folk Art Fantasy
By Carol McGarvey | Photography by Ben Lochard
HOME FEATURE October/November 2017
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Folk art: Typically it’s traditional art by untrained and often anonymous people. Examples include baskets, carvings, paintings, and utensils in decorative designs and bright, bold colors.

Even if Jann Freed’s husband, John Fisher, is not at home, she is never alone. After all, she has “her people” in nearly every room of their Des Moines home. She hangs out with stand-up cutouts, such as David Letterman waving from the living room and Austin Powers showing his toothy grin. Mini-Me even pops in, along with other movie stars and notables, among them former Iowa coach Hayden Fry.

For John’s 50th birthday, Jann had a life-size cutout made of him to decorate the occasion. When her three sons graduated from high school, yup, she graced their parties with their likenesses, too. “These days, now that they are all grown, it gives me a little bit of comfort to see them standing there,” she says with a smile.

But that’s not all. Jann, who taught business management and marketing classes at Central College in Pella for more than 30 years, has a treasure trove of American and Mexican folk art, much of it in people and animal forms.

“I taught at Central’s international program in Yucatan, Mexico, for two semesters,” she explains. “Then I went back numerous times, when I coauthored a book with George Ann Huck. It is The Women of Yucatan: Thirty Who Dare to Change Their World. Every time I went to Mexico, I, of course, had to shop. George Ann got me started on appreciating Mexican art.” Jann now is a business consultant, helping companies with leadership development.

As she explains, back then there weren’t so many weight restrictions on bringing pieces out of the country. So she has large and small figures, furniture, and numerous brilliantly colored rugs and pillows. She now looks for shops, such as those in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Albuquerque, that carry interesting folk art pieces from south of the border.

From the front door, visitors get a hint of what’s to come inside. There’s a primitive Lady Liberty from an artist in McGregor, Iowa. Inside the entryway is a country-style American flag with the Pledge of Allegiance painted on red and white slats to form stripes.

Jann loves to place her pieces in unexpected spots. While David Letterman waves from behind the grand piano, a big red and white wooden pig and a colorful wool bull stand under it. On top of the piano is a brightly colored trumpeting angel. A bongo-playing man in a sombrero stands by the piano’s music stand to add some fun.

Mix it up

Jann enjoys mixing things up a bit. In the living room contemporary black and chrome Barcelona chairs give a subtle backdrop to all the art. And even the chandelier in the room has cutout animals on it and birds hanging from it. “I love to hang small items from other pieces,” she says. “It’s just a fun little touch.”

In a living room corner is a noncolorful friend, Hope, named for a framed poem by the same name that sits near her. She is a life-size woman fashioned of cream-color gauzy fabric. “I saw her for half price in a gallery in Cedar Rapids, and knew I had to bring her home,” Jann says. “I think she was designed by an art professor at Drake University. To get her to Des Moines, yes, I strapped her in the passenger side of my car. We rode home together down I-80.”

In her home—“not a big house, but there are interesting spaces”—Jann utilizes every inch for her collections. “If John had a choice, I think he would be a minimalist” she admits. “All he asks, though, is that I collect no more skeletons.” That’s a reference to Day of the Dead, or All Souls’ Day, in Mexico, a time for remembering deceased family and friends. People build altars and shrines and take favorite foods and possessions of those who have died to their gravesites.

Cabinet shelves in the family room house a whimsical array of animals—dogs, pigs, chickens, a porcupine, a bull, you name it. Jann also collects Mexican masks and angels. Throughout the home, numerous photos of family members add a personal touch.

In the dining room a classic Mexican-inspired long trestle table is surrounded by ladder-back chairs with woven leather seats. A folk art framed piece, Tangible Evidence of Miracles, enumerates the artist’s personal list of miraculous items: butterfly, hands, human heart, tulip, smile, mountain, lake, music, and, what else, shoes.

More outside

Her creativity doesn’t stop inside. In the lovely shaded patio behind the house, other pieces of artwork stand among the hostas, caladiums, and hibiscus. Supervising the family’s two Wheaten terriers, Grover and O’Malley, as they romp and play are primitive figures of the Jolly Green Giant and Uncle Sam.

Jann also has a long-standing photography hobby. She has had her photos put on stacks of dinner plates; other plates carry the artwork of her sons when they were little. She also makes holiday greeting cards, which also can be used as ornaments, to send to friends and relatives, along with black-and-white postcards, which she sells at Found Things, Beaverdale Books, and the Des Moines Social Club.

In this home, which is a color explosion for the eyes, a saying on a pillow and on a framed piece, gives whimsical fair warning—Be Nice or Leave.


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