Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Photo by Gesi Schilling

“I’m seeing all of these amazing paintings and I just couldn’t wait to get started.” He said, “I knew that if I was around these people, there was so much I could learn.”

Free’s portrait of Rashad Nelson, in AFH’s Painting Studio, made with oil paint.
Free Marseille’s self portrait, made with ballpoint pen on paper.

“I heard about this place that was filled with other people and, back then, I wanted to see what it was like to be around so many artists. It sounded like something in a movie.”

Art, and creativity in general, began early for Free. Since childhood, engaging with art was a way to entertain himself while playing in front of his house. At eleven, he was making portraits for people in his neighborhood and, in high school, he spent time making MySpace layouts for himself and his friends. In addition to the visual arts, Free also spent his time dancing with his friends and developing a fascination with poetry and creative expression. Although he was well versed in the arts by the time he joined the program, Free cites AFH as a place where he discovered painting as a hotbed of inspiration.

A still from a mixed media installation by Free Marseille.
The first commission Free did for AFH as a teenager offered a chance to take a creative risk.
A recent personal piece, KKLL deluxe edition cover, is the cover to an album Free is working on.

“When the painting wasn’t looking like I wanted it to, it made me nervous, it made me think that maybe I wasn’t the right person for the job. But I just took it home and kept working on it and it eventually came together.”

This experience, a lesson in confidence, professional opportunity, and growth, served to shape Free’s path after graduation. Free graduated high school and pursued higher education at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). After two years there, he transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he earned a degree in Illustration.

At RISD, Free earned a degree in Illustration. Photo by the artist.

“Being here and getting the chance to develop my skills gave me a boost. So when I went to college, I think I ended up working harder than a lot of my peers.”

Even after he graduated high school, Free was able to reflect on the ways in which AFH impacted not only the Boston community as a whole, but also the community in which he grew up. AFH’s Beyond the Stratos mural at Brockton’s Enterprise Building bears the hallmark of Free’s work, along with that of dozens of other artists involved. Free notes how this mural, one of his most memorable projects, reflects the direct impact of AFH on his community.

The group of teens Free mentored in AFH’s Painting Studio, wearing t-shirts of his design.
Designs by Free Marseille for his line, under Free’s artist name S.O.T.T.M.

“Everyone knew about AFH. Our friends would visit all of the time. We always had our AFH shirts on and it got to the point where people who didn’t work here had their own AFH shirts. AFH was a household name in a way at Brockton High.”

“So it impacted the school in that way, by having a presence,” Free said.

To Free, AFH served as more than just a space that cultivated art and provided a weekly paycheck. He saw it as a place that developed links between people and communities, and provided a safe space for Boston teenagers.

Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer” album cover art was designed by Abdul Ali, Joe Perez, and Free Marseille.

“After work, there was a large group of us, about twenty, who would stay after. Pretty much the entire teen staff would go outside and play manhunt or capture the flag in the parking lot. We were able to live as kids and have fun.”

He explains, “That was amazing to me because we had formed links to one another and it created a really large circle where we all came together.”

“Butterflies” by Free Marseille, made with oil paint on canvas.

Free explains, “My first summer at AFH solidified my childhood fantasy of making art full-time and being able to make a living from it. That first summer convinced me that it was a realistic goal, and not just a fantasy.”

He continues, “As a mentor, I was constantly having conversations with my group, encouraging them to follow their hearts’ desires, and to go after their dreams even if they seemed unreachable. Having a leadership position in the Painting Studio and being recruitment coordinator for AFH gave me a chance to connect with nearly every teen that AFH hired.”

A still from Free’s short film called “LOR.”

“Eventually, I started desiring to connect with my group on a level that was deeper than just my physical presence and mentorship. I realized that in order to be the best mentor that I could be to them, I would have to step out and be as bold in following my dreams as I was encouraging them to be.”

In the process, Free also saw the transformative power of art as a practice. Free explains, “Over the years, I learned the importance of expressing ourselves; how powerful art was in generating change in our world. After leaving AFH, I put all of my energy into creating work that would hopefully add to the ongoing dialogues I had been having with the teens I mentored. Today, I have the privilege of participating in the creation of art that is consumed by people all over the world.”

A still from another short film by the artist, called “Ashes.”

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