By Su Byron
Michael James Freedman ’84 grew up in a home that celebrated both art and science.
His parents encouraged him to draw and paint. They also encouraged him to learn the art of coding on a TRS-80 computer. They nourished both sides of his brain.
That well-rounded experience continued at New College, where Freedman studied both fine art and mathematics. In the process, he learned to think for himself—and he had the time of his life.
Palm Court was the center of Freedman’s New College universe. And he wasn’t alone.
“If you were a New College student, those 24 crazy-tall royal palms were like a magnet,” Freedman said. “By day, it was a gathering place. By night, it was an outdoor dance party. For so many of us, it was a truly magical place with so many happy memories. I painted murals for parties and had many long, late-night conversations there.”
He also spent romantic, starlit nights musing about life and love there with a fellow student, Grace ’85, with whom he had fallen in love.
Freedman graduated from New College in 1988 and eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York, with Grace. They married soon after. He kept painting for several years and made a mark as an artist. After the birth of the couple’s son, he shifted gears.
Internet fever was sweeping the country and Freedman caught it. In 1996, he joined forces with a digital startup company. In 1997, he left to create his own startup. After a few pivots, it morphed into the legendary vocabulary.com.
That jump from high art to high tech seems like quite a leap. Freedman doesn’t think so.
“New College encourages you to learn new things and not be afraid to figure things out for yourself,” he said. “You’re not a passive receptacle for professors to teach. You teach yourself and the professors guide you. You’re responsible for your own education—that’s the core idea. And it’s been the foundation of my whole career.”
That foundation was strong, and it supported Freedman’s new venture. He worked hard to make his business the success it became—but he made little art during those years. Vocaculary.com had an amazing track record. After a successful 23-year run, Freedman figured it was time to get off the track.
“We sold the company in February 2020,” he said. “It was right before the world stopped.”
What led him to restart his art?
“My daughter was the catalyst,” he said. “She’s an art student. One day, she said, ‘Let’s go and draw some trees in the park.’ We did—and it was really nice.”
Freedman made more art. Pen and ink drawings in the park were relatively easy. But could he still paint?
A few days later, Freedman met his beloved high school art teacher in a dream. He walked into the classroom and his teacher looked at him and said, “What are you doing? Get back to work!”
Freedman interpreted that as a command to start making art again. He wasn’t sure he still had it in him, but he tried anyway.
“When I picked up a paintbrush again, it was like I’d never put it down,” he said. “I was really surprised! It’s like my subconscious mind had been working on it for 25 years. I hadn’t been making art, but I was still seeing like an artist. Except for retraining my hands, it was all still there.”
Freedman started with paintings of cacti. But unfolding history demanded his attention.
“So much was happening,” he recalled. “The pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Trump. It was both disturbing and inspiring. I felt a responsibility to capture what was happening.”
Freedman experienced a burst of productivity and produced a mix of paintings, including scenes from BLM events, the January 6 event at the Capitol, protest marches, portraits of political figures, landscapes—and even a “Sleepy Dog” series.
He just kept painting and didn’t censor himself.
One day, Freedman received a call from Marcia Crawley, a director of philanthropy at the New College Foundation. Freedman and his wife had been gladly giving back to New College throughout the years. But, as he and Crawley spoke, a thought came to him: What if he could help raise scholarship funds through his art?
He’d first create an original painting. Then he’d create a series of giclee prints—and donate all of the proceeds to support student learning. Crawley loved the idea.
But what should he paint? Palm Court instantly came to mind.
“I thought about how much Palm Court meant to me, and how much I’d love to paint those palm trees,” he said. “Marcia was totally on board.”
Freedman found the perfect photo reference. Then he painted the mystical gathering place of his youth in vivid gouache. The image, Palm Court, that he created was beautiful, dreamy, otherworldly and surreal.
When he posted that image on social media, it was an instant hit.
Freedman especially enjoyed the quote from Ramon Mujica Pinilla on Facebook: “Great angle. And one gets the feeling that it is in movement, as if the palm trees and buildings were liquid; it is an image rescued from the bottom of memory, the mind’s ocean.”
Freedman is delighted with the print’s critical acclaim—and thrilled at how many he has sold. He has already raised more than $2,000 from print sales, and he envisions raising more as word of the artwork spreads. He notes that each gicleé print is numbered. At some point this year, he’ll reach the final number, though he hasn’t decided what it will be yet.
“It’s a lot like planting seeds,” he said. “Years ago, I bought thousands of seeds and gathered fellow New College friends to plant rows and rows of baby trees between the Pei dorms and U.S. 41. Today, they’ve become a small forest of live oaks, red maples and bald cypress trees. It’s amazing to know that I helped create a forest! That’s something I can be proud of. Planting the seeds of learning will give me just as much pride.”
To see Freedman’s work, and to view and purchase a Palm Court painting, visit michaeljamesfreedman.com.
Su Byron is the communications specialist for the New College Foundation.