David Fried, Artist
Today’s story is the third of seven features by Contributing Writer Delwar Hussain
Dave with The Defended Personality
Dave Fried is an Artist that works part-time as an Art Therapist with people who have mental health issues. Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I are drinking tea in the kitchen of Dave’s Victorian house in Stoke Newington where he has lived for the past twenty years. As Dave talks, I observe his hands. He pinches his thick thumb and forefinger to emphasise a point, opens his palms out to the ceiling when explaining something, taps the table with a middle finger, points into the air, rubs the left hand with the right, clasps them together and slides them in between his thighs.
Next to the kitchen table is a ceramic sculpture of a boy inside a tractor tyre, a memory from his childhood when he used to roll down hills in them. Dave has made the boy in the tractor tyre repeatedly in many different forms, including drawings and paintings.
“I like making things properly,” he tells me. “A lot of artists have other people to do their stuff and they become ‘art managers.’ Sometimes I show my works, sometimes I sell them, but really for me, it’s about making them – that’s the pleasure of it.”
Dave’s artwork is placed all around the house – paintings, drawings, etchings, ceramics and sculptures. He takes me around, pointing to this drawing and that installation in the hallway, and the sculpture in the garden. They feel tactile, you want to pick them up, touch them, turn them over and discover what might be underneath. He is constantly experimenting with materials and styles, but the process is always the same he says, “I make a mess first then attempt to find and create order out of the confusion.”
In the sitting room, with its ornate plaster cornice and marble fireplaces are books, records, motorbike equipment and a washing machine. There is a small painting hanging on a wall besides the window. ‘The Milkman’ was painted in 1973 and was the first oil painting he ever did. It is of a man in a blue uniform and hat, who looks like he could either be a figure of authority or just a harmless milkman holding two pints of milk, or even a boy playing the role. Dave says the painting is yet to be finished, but so many years have passed since he began that he would not know where to start again.
“My art allows me to externalise things I am thinking and feeling,” he says. “I use it to communicate my ideas and thoughts. If I didn’t do it, I would go crazy. I think my work has a sense of humour, a little dark perhaps, and some people find it a little bleak or disturbed.”
On a book shelf is a sculpture of what looks like a watchtower with the head of a figure carrying a rifle popping over the top. It has ‘The Defended Personality’ etched onto it. Dave reaches over and takes it off the shelf. The watchtower is held up by the legs of the figure, so that it is both a figure and a watchtower.
“We all have defences for a reason – to protect ourselves, we don’t want to be vulnerable” Dave explains. “But some people are so defensive of themselves and their personality that it’s like they are inside a fortress. If you are so defensive that no one can get in and you can’t get out, then it becomes a prison of sorts, a trap.”
Dave bends down and picks up another sculpture. It is called ‘Kicking the Bucket’ and is an example of his dark humour. A white bucket has a black boot sticking out of it and, at the end of this is a human head baring its teeth. Dave made it soon after the death of his father who, along with his mother, Dave’s grandmother, had come to London in 1938 as a refugee escaping the Nazi Holocaust. Most of the family that did not get out were killed.
There is an oil painting of his father that Dave has just inherited leaning on top of a speaker in the sitting room. The likeness between the two is apparent, but then I realise something. Dave’s figures – whether they are painted, drawn or sculpted – nearly always have great, big bulging eyes, overly large hands and faces on a relatively small body. They are in-between or a combination of boy and man. They have similar expressions on their faces, either deceptive, suggesting that they are in the middle of a fit of laughter, or grimacing in abject pain.
Ambiguity exists in other forms too, apparent with the sculpture of the boy inside the tyre. This image has connotations of freedom and movement, a lack of restrictions, but there is also something slightly sinister about it. The tyre only gives an illusion of freedom because it will dictate how you will roll down the hill.
Back at the kitchen table, Dave talks more about his childhood. He speaks steadily, rhythmically, thoughtfully. His voice is deep and heavy. He was born in London but grew up in Copenhagen with his mother. He says it was a difficult time in his life. His parents got divorced and he had a fraught relationship with his mother’s new family. He experimented with drugs and was sent to a child psychologist. Eventually, at the age of fourteen, Dave returned to London to live with his father.
As well as being a poet, writer and translator, Dave’s father Erich Fried was a member of the German intelligentsia, a Marxist, a Bohemian and a Humanist. Dave remembers people coming to the house in Kilburn every day. They were characters he describes as being “profoundly lost,” disaffected young Germans and also older survivors of the war and its aftermath, wanting to start a revolution or seeking guidance.
“My father spent much of his life trying to understand how a civilised society could enact mass murder in the way that Germany did. Like so many of his generation, he was haunted by the Holocaust and the Second World War. He talked about it every day, how totalitarian regimes dehumanise people and then do anything they want to them, including mass extermination. They discussed endlessly how Hitler had been elected democratically and then did away with the democratic system altogether, and about the logistics of the Holocaust.”
Erich and his life experiences exerted a profound influence upon Dave. The things that he saw and heard, Dave says, were too much for a teenager to know and, in the process, they undermined his sense of security. I look at Dave’s hands, now resting on his lap. When Erich died in 1988, Dave says it left a void in his life and in the lives of others too – and maybe Art can only begin to fill it?
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
You may also like to read