Visual Arts

Louisville's prince of prints becomes subject of film portrait

Julius Friedman set a piano on fire for a poster for the Louisville band Tin Can Buddha.
Julius Friedman set a piano on fire for a poster for the Louisville band Tin Can Buddha.

For more than 30 years, Louisville photographer and graphic designer Julius Friedman has been making iconic images: a flaming piano, cracked eggs with colorful yolks, the descending dove of peace and, possibly most notably, a ballerina's slippered foot resting atop an egg, a print that still can be found in poster shops.

What makes Tom Thurman's new Kentucky Muse film on Friedman terrific is that it plumbs past the icons to deliver a truly inspiring portrait of a unique Kentucky artist whose work is intensely public yet personal.

Though Louisville was not an ideal location to make a go of it as a graphic artist and photographer in the 1970s, the chorus of friends and associates who carry the narration of the film and Friedman make it clear that it was the perfect place for him to make his mark locally and nationally. It wasn't such a big city that he got swallowed up, but it was big enough for his career to gain traction as his images, particularly posters, started catching people's eyes.

"It's one piece of paper, and either people get it or they don't, they like or they don't," Friedman says of his attraction to poster work in Julius Friedman: Picture This.

The film follows Friedman on one of his iconic poster shoots: a piano in flames for the Louisville band Tin Can Buddha.

"Why don't we just get a grand piano and set it on fire?" band member Rodney Hatfield recalls Friedman saying, noting the photographer brought along the lighter fluid to set the piano ablaze.

Thurman has a knack for capturing guy camaraderie, which he has done in previous efforts including 2002's Basketball in Kentucky: Great Balls of Fire and this year's Harry Dean Stanton: Crossing Mulholland.

That friendship takes the viewer to the most intriguing aspect of this film, Friedman's other artistic endeavor: stacking stones at his 200-acre Westport farm. Friedman calls the project "pure process," to create configurations such as arches and statues that are really just built for his own satisfaction, not to sell or show. It is probably one of the best cases of art for art's sake out there. Friedman says he gets personal, spiritual satisfaction from the projects.

He also derives a lot of satisfaction from working with other artists. We see that in his efforts to shoot the porcelain sculptures of Vineyard Haven, Mass., artist Jennifer McCurdy in natural settings around his farm and in his collaboration with Louisville ballerina Erica de la O to create unique images of the artist at work.

"It's pretty neat to work with another artist and see how these two worlds can connect," de la O says.

Artist and curator Kay Grubola observes that Friedman "takes joy in other people's creativity."

The film, like Thurman's other Kentucky Muse pieces, is essentially told as oral history, and in this film he gets one of the cleanest narrations yet with the speakers thoroughly telling this story.

The portrait that emerges is of an artist who became successful not by trying to follow a prescribed game plan for an career but by following his muses, delighting in his process and demanding quality. By watching Friedman's artistic process we see that a big part of the joy and intrigue we get from looking at his images is the joy and intrigue he has in making them.