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Carole Freeman finds her muse on Facebook

Carole Freeman at the Edward Day Gallery in Toronto, Nov. 30, 2011.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

There are emerging artists and then there's Carole Freeman who, at 57, likes to call herself a "re-emerging artist."

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Freeman graduated from the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1980, intending to forge a career as a figurative painter. "Then circumstances took me elsewhere," she said in an interview the other day.

The most decisive circumstance was finding herself pregnant and single and having to get an education degree in Toronto to take care of her daughter. Later, when she might have resumed her art, she was stricken by an unspecified chronic illness that left her unable to pick up a brush and hampered her ability to walk and talk.

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But by 2008 Freeman had recovered enough to return to painting. And this weekend she's having a solo show at Toronto's Edward Day Gallery displaying her particular adaptation of one of the art world's oldest genres, to the digital world's most popular forum for self-exposure, the Facebook page. In the past 16 to 18 months, Freeman has painted portraits of more than 200 of her 1,400 Facebook friends, based on the images they've posted online.

Titled Friend Me, the show is a potpourri of artists and musicians, arts administrators and journalists, writers and filmmakers from around the globe, some famous, others almost-so, the rest not so much. All Freeman's subjects have seen her treatments of them and, she says, "the responses have been nothing but positive."

Also supportive is Facebook Canada managing director Jordan Banks, who attended and spoke at the opening of Freeman's show earlier this week. "I was moved by Carole's story," he said in an e-mail, "and by hearing how Facebook has inspired her beautiful portraits." The Facebook phenomenon, he says, "minimizes isolation, fosters socialization ... gives people a voice and it's amazing to see such a unique expression of that in Carole's exhibit."

Until relatively recently, Freeman confessed she had "no use" for Facebook. About the only thing she logged on for was to play online Scrabble games with her siblings. Then, after meeting Eric Fischl at an exhibition in Toronto, she got to wondering if the famous U.S. artist was on Facebook. He was. Soon Freeman was scouting for other artistic types with social-media inclinations.

"Really, it was about opening up the art world to me," she says. "It floored me that someone like [British art superstars]Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst were there and I could actually message them, whereas in real life ... well, maybe I could meet them in London, but even that was highly doubtful."

As Freeman made more and more connections, she became intrigued by their Facebook portraits – the way one was funny, another serious, the next highly artistic. One day it hit her: "Here's this limitless, ever-changing source of fabulous faces and characters who want to share!" Painting them, she realized she was not only "taking the virtual wall back to tradition" there was also the potential, for her, of "getting back to the gallery wall."

But she's also had another friend helping out. Her ex-husband, Michael Bain, who advises10 Canadian and U.S. artists, helped get Freeman one of her first Toronto exhibitions, of showbiz portraits at the Park Hyatt Hotel during the 2010 film festival. It was Bain, too, who was instrumental in persuading Mary Sue Rankin, founder/curator of Edward Day Gallery, to take on Friend Me.

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Being a big-picture guy, Bain sees Friend Me as something more than an art show. Indeed, the Edward Day event is just one element of something called Friend Me Projects, "a global initiative," in Bain's words, "to promote connection, friendship and common humanity."

In concrete terms, this means trying to get Freeman's work into other cities and having her conduct portraiture workshops in which high-school students visit Edward Day, then paint their friends and Facebook the results. Planned for later this month is Face the World: Global Paint Party, a campaign whose "ultimate goal will be to have 800 million users of Facebook painting each other and connecting in ways they normally wouldn't think of."

Whatever comes of the project, Freeman feels blessed after years of hardship to finally have an exhibition "in a top-tier gallery in a cosmopolitan city." Watching the show's installation, "I started getting fairly emotional because this has been what I have always wanted ... Maybe," she said, "this is finally my time."

Friend Me: Portraits of Facebook runs at Toronto's Edward Day Gallery until Jan. 7 (

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