A creative life | Kitsap Week

Craig Freeman freestyles on a piano in a conference room at Northwest College of Art & Design. The piano once owned by a former prime minister of Poland.   - Megan Stephenson / Kitsap Week
Craig Freeman freestyles on a piano in a conference room at Northwest College of Art & Design. The piano once owned by a former prime minister of Poland.
— image credit: Megan Stephenson / Kitsap Week

POULSBO — Craig Freeman is an atypical mix of businessman and fine artist. There are times where he is lost in thought, painting feverishly on a canvas, intent on capturing the light. A few hours later, he is crunching numbers and looking at building site plans, just as animated as he is when creating a work of art.

Freeman has strong personal philosophies about art, life, and how they intertwine, and he created success from what he calls his personal “manifest destiny.”

“Live your life on purpose, for a purpose,” he said.

One of his purposes has been the school he founded, Northwest College of Art and Design, or NCAD, which is celebrating its 30th year. What was once a rented space for night art classes has evolved into a private fine arts college on a campus overlooking Liberty Bay. The accredited college offers nine majors and has 10-15 teachers.

Its underlying mission is to help its students live a creative life, said Julius Finley, director of education. What sets the school apart from other art schools, Finley said, is the career-oriented, individualized attention.

“Art is a business and a passion,” Freeman added. “Talent is not enough. You have to be hungry enough to be out there and make it work.”

NCAD walks the line between passion and practicality, education and academia. The year-round program allows students to complete a bachelor's in fine art in three years, even with the required double major. Freeman said he wanted all his students to be exposed to different forms of art, especially combining core artistry and digital skills. He changed the school’s name a few years ago, adding “Design” on the end to reflect change in the industry.

Students learn the foundation of art, how art can be applied in the workforce and how to be paid for that creativity. Interrelated classes such as graphic design production can be paired with business entrepreneurship.

“We’re teaching our students they have to be lifelong learners,” Finley said. “Their careers will change … they need to know how to learn.”Freeman said he became a teacher because he didn't like his own educational experience — too academic. College should be about relevance to the workforce, even for artists, he said.

Freeman grew up in California’s San Francisco Bay area. After graduating with a master’s in fine arts from San Jose State University in 1975, he taught at two Catholic schools, a junior college and a high school. In 1982, he decided to start his own school, to the doubt of his colleagues. His wife, however, was supportive, and the young family packed up and moved to Poulsbo.

Freeman and his wife, Ulla, originally from Finland, have three grown children. The Freemans lived in Poulsbo and on Bainbridge Island and currently reside in Kauai, where some of his artwork is displayed in local galleries.

Freeman founded the Northwest Art Center at Liberty Bay Marina in 1982, as a gallery and art supply store that also offered night classes (he also co-founded West Sound Academy). In 1990, when a 150-acre estate just east of Lemolo became available, something in Freeman’s mind lit up.

The property was owned by the Brennan family, whose matriarch, Nanny Brennan, had just died. Freeman said he was drawn to the land, even though he knew he couldn’t afford it. But Freeman found an investor and leased the land from him until 2000, when he was able to buy the property.

Today’s 27-acre campus, situated between Poulsbo and Suquamish off State Highway 305, houses the estate's original buildings, kept for their architectural integrity, and a few new studio buildings. About 100 students attend the college, and Finley said about 800 have graduated over the last 30 years.

The college also maintains a constant, interactive involvement with the diverse art industry — art directors, commercial artists, gallery owners, photographers and web designers. Finley said the college has a program advisory committee that meets a few times a year to determine what employers are looking for and adjust the curriculum to meet those needs.

Graduates have gone on to form their own businesses and work for industry leaders. Graduates include Greg Cook of Becker & Mayer, a creator, producer and manufacturer of nonfiction books for adults and book and toy products for children; Jeremy Moff of Moff Interactive, a website design company in Poulsbo; and Shiloh Schroeder of Fusion Creative Works, a graphic and website design company in Poulsbo. Others have worked for Microsoft and the clothing company Zumiez.

The school helps its students with job placement. Freeman boasts a 92 percent job placement rate from the last graduating class — a strong feat in a declining economy. But the dwindling job market and federal cuts to student loans and grants are difficult to overcome. Freeman decided to offer his own scholarships, one of which is a $40,000 grant for Native American students.

Freeman also decided to create a new educational opportunity — the Freeman Academy of Art, as a way of celebrating 30 years of traditional education. The academy will not be accredited but taught in the “atelier style” — intense studio sessions with a master artist. Students will study anatomy and work with live subjects and models.

As an artist, Freeman mainly paints portraits and landscapes, but has “danced around realism, from a naturalist perspective, and exaggerated landscapes.”

Neoclassicism and realism were popular art forms among artists in the 19th century, the paintings mainly religious art. In the past 20 years, what is now called classical realism has gained momentum among contemporary artists — a realistic, aesthetic style of painting the modern world.

“Art that is created by the human hand, eye, brain — no computer is able to master that,” Freeman said. He said the commercialization of digital artwork has actually been the “catalyst, propelling [artists] back to classical art.”

Freeman plans to open the academy in 2013, and has also envisioned an amphitheater on campus for live music and theater. While Freeman has plans to grow the college, the school must remain modest in order to offer individualized attention.

“Growth can be seen as one identifying factor of success, but [we] don’t see it as the most important,” Finley said. “Student success demonstrates what we offer is a valuable service.”

Finley and Freeman both recount with pride the kind of transformation they’ve seen in their students — from shy, introverted beginners to confident graduates with professional portfolios.

“For us to get a chance to see that, we have to see them as individuals,” Finley said.

Freeman describes himself as a cheerleader, often rallying his students to not listen to naysayers.

“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you ‘you can’t,’ ” he said.

He tells his students, “If you could change anything about humanity, what would you change? That’s your path — and how can you bring awareness to that through art.”


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