By Gwyn McAllister
You may have seen Althea Freeman-Miller’s distinctive block prints at the Scottish Bakehouse, or if you visited the Artisans Festival or Chilmark Flea Market over the past several years. Now the young artist has a gallery of her own on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, and along with weekend hours, she is also hosting weekly Friday Pop-Up events in the parking lot of the building next to the Martha’s Vineyard Times’ office on Beach Road.
The gallery is stocked with Freeman-Miller’s charming linoleum block prints, featuring a variety of subjects done in a primitive, folk art style, along with examples of the artist’s latest line of laser-cut hand-painted wooden images. The original block print designs can also be found on a line of apparel for men, women, and children, and on tote bags and greeting cards.
On Friday afternoons from 11 am to 5 pm, the parking lot turns into an open-air market offering a variety of items by local artists and artisans. Regular participants include Jonah Miller of Island Spray (spray-painting), Angela Sison’s Conrado line of clothing, Frock brand designs by Trish Ginter, and terrarium kits, houseplants, and flowers from Kay Frank of Plant Post.
Althea Designs opened on Memorial Day weekend of 2019. Last summer Freeman-Miller shared the space with a few other artisans, but this year, due to COVID-19, she decided to limit the gallery to her own work. The additional space has allowed her to move her printing press into the workspace, and transform it into a gallery and working studio. The gallery is open Thursday through Saturday, while Freeman-Miller creates new work, takes online orders from her Etsy shop, and packs and ships work on the other days.
The Vineyard born-and-raised artist is the daughter of two well-known local artists, painter and commercial artist Laurie Miller, known for his sign and poster designs for a number of local businesses, and ceramicist and clothing designer Leslie Freeman, who had a kids’ clothing store in Vineyard Haven for many years. Some of Freeman’s ceramic work, and copies of a new book illustrated by the artist and gallerist’s father (“Vinland the Good: Ancient Vineyard’s Unexplored Past,” by Jonathan Scott) are available at Althea Designs.
Freeman-Miller studied elementary education at a small school in Vermont, then stayed on in the area for a few years before finding her way back to the Vineyard. She’s been devoting herself full-time to making and selling her artwork for the past five years or so.
She often bases her rustic designs on animals, fruit and other food imagery, and ordinary household items, like a vegetable grater or a flashlight. “I really love when I’m inspired by a simple object that I feel really grateful for,” says the artist. “It might just be a hammer, but maybe it will remind you of a person that you have a connection with, or a project.”
Some of her designs are more complex — like a hen sitting atop a nest full of eggs, a Western scene with horse and rider, or a trio of fish leaping in the waves. Every one of the prints — and the new laser-cut wooden wall panels — has a sense of joy and celebration of life. “I can’t help it,” she says. “I just make really happy and colorful folk art.”
This year the artist was inspired by current events to create two unique designs. Her image of two hands cradling a heart-emblazoned Martha’s Vineyard outline has been used by the All Island Business Task Force as its coronavirus awareness poster.
Shortly before the first Black Lives Matter demonstration at Five Corners in April of this year, Freeman-Miller created a poster honoring the movement. She gave some away, and then sold a batch and donated the money to a BLM organization in Boston. She found that people wanted to purchase T shirts and other items with the design, but she decided that as a white artist and businessperson, she didn’t feel it was appropriate to profit or promote her own work based on a movement defending people of color. “I decided to step back,” she says. “I wanted to leave that space to Black artists and business owners.”
Freeman-Miller’s most recent endeavor is facilitating what she calls Creative Wellness workshops. Pre-pandemic, she started off the venture by doing a group session incorporating meditation and journaling. For now she’s put the concept on hold until she can host groups of people safely again, although she currently is offering one-on-one workshops.
“I want it to feel like an invitation to have fun and feel inspired and free,” says the artist of her latest project. “I want to encourage people to learn about themselves through making art, or any kind of creative activity. If everyone felt comfortable doing that, the world would be a better place.”
Althea Designs, 34 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven. etsy.com/shop/altheadesigns; instagram.com/altheadesignsmv/?hl=en @AltheaDesignsMV, and altheadesigns.com.