In the midst of a party in a studio apartment in the Big Orbit Gallery last week, one figure seemed to quietly exert some sort of gravitational force on the proceedings.
It's not that he was doing much to draw attention to himself; rather, the assembled were coming to him, as if to a meeting with the pope. When he spoke, he got right in your face, excitedly making some point, and you felt like your presence at this party was somehow important, and that your presence in this city was even more so.
He'd ask what you were up to -- everyone at this shindig was involved, in one form or another, with Buffalo's cultural life, as musician, painter, videographer, poet -- and then he'd casually press a copy of his new book in your palm and make it quite plain he really cared what you thought of it.
For the 16 years I've been in Buffalo, Mark Freeland has been the mayor of Allen Street, the duke of the underground arts scene, the feather-capped freak prince of the city beneath the city.
Freeland earned such a reputation through decades of music-making -- with legendary progressive outfit Pegasus, with his own Electroman, with the Fems, as a solo artist -- but he also earned it by simply being himself. He was a walking art installation, a painter whose greatest work was himself.
Now, Freeland has released "Every Night Is Different," a collection of paintings, writings and photographs spanning the last decade or so. And it's this magical little book which has the cultural cognoscente tripping all over each other and spilling their beer on this night, all just to get a word or two with Freeland.
Invariably -- and anyone who has ever released their own piece of art, musical, theatrical, what have you, knows how rare this is -- everyone tells Freeland how touched they are by the book, by how much of themselves they see in it, how it made them laugh or forget about their woes for a bit.
"Mission accomplished," laughs Freeland. "If people feel that way, then I've achieved my goal."
Freeland, of course, has not given up on music. "I'll be doing that until the day I die," he says. "But this is my new conquest. I think I stand the greatest chance of bringing something positive to the greatest number of people this way. The response so far has been amazing, from various parts of the world. I heard from people in Tokyo, who can't even read English, and they still got it. It really seems to speak to people."
Freeland's style is childlike, which is far from a criticism -- he captures, with a directness inherent to children's art, emotions, thoughts represented in skewed views, scraps of euphoria, and haiku-like snippets. One has trouble disassociating oneself from the pieces collected here, for the very reason that one sees oneself in them.
"My philosophy in both music and visual art is simple," says Freeland. "The world beats the (expletive) out of all of us, no matter what our age -- 5 or 50 -- every damn day. And we survive, we deal with it. And then the next day, the world comes back and beats the crap out of us again. The world just gets weirder and weirder and weirder every day. Human beings weren't meant to live like this. So my goal is to make people forget about it all -- the news, George Bush, bills, information overload, whatever -- even if it's just for a moment."
"The great example I like to give is Kiss," he laughs. "You're at a Kiss concert, and you aren't thinking about anything else, you've got your fist in the air, confetti in your hair and you're screaming, 'Rock 'n' roll all night and party every day' at the top of your lungs. Later, you're like, 'Wait a minute, that's not me, I never act that way!' But for that moment, there you are, and you love life and you love yourself and you love the people you're with. That's it, right there."
Which is not to say that art is a shallow form of entertainment for Freeland.
"Look, Ani DiFranco and Bob Marley are mammoth and should be," he enthuses. "People should absolutely make political art, if that's what they believe, and that's what they're good at. But everyone is different, and everyone can make a contribution is their own fashion. My goal is just to make them feel something, to make them react in a way that is somehow positive."
Freeland is looking for a larger distribution deal for "Every Night Is Different" presently. In the meantime, it's available locally at Talking Leaves and New World Record and can also be found through www.markfreeland.com, where a healthy selection of Freeland's artwork and scraps of his impressive musical history have a permanent home.
In June, he'll oversee an installation of his works at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in conjunction with Robby Takac's Music Is Art '05 celebration. The show opens June 10 and runs for a week.
And there'll always be the music.
"That never changes. I still take music lessons, I still feel like a kid when I sit down with my guitar to figure something out. I'm still excited by all of it -- the music, the paintings, and especially the book.
"It's contagious, man!"