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Gainesville teacher shows his artwork in big London exhibition
Gainesville Middle School art teacher shows off his painted elephant sculpture.

Winding paths are the surest way to surmount a mountain. Gainesville Middle School art teacher Mitch Freeman embraces this notion in his painted elephant sculpture to be showcased at a May art exhibition billed as London’s biggest.

Freeman is one of seven Americans who joined artists and celebrities from around the globe in painting 200 fiber glass baby elephants to benefit elephant family, a nonprofit agency dedicated to enabling wild and captive Asian elephants to thrive within their natural habitats.

The Gainesville artist returned on Dec. 21 from a week of painting in London, and will travel to London again in May and July for the premiere and auction.

Mark Shand, brother of Camilla Parker Bowles, founded the Elephant Parade exhibition following his trip to India where he saw first-hand the plight of the endangered Asian elephant. Freeman said he is representing the U.S. in the exhibition alongside designers Diane von Furstenberg, Tommy Hilfiger, Isaac Mizrahi, Alberta Ferretti, photographer Bruce Weber and rocker Alice Cooper.

The wildly painted elephant sculptures will fill the parks, squares and street corners of London in May before Sotheby’s auctions the elephants in July. New York and Milan also will host the Elephant Parade, giving the sculptures a bicontinental audience of an estimated 25 million, elephant family reports.

Freeman said he is firm in his Christian faith and believes it is no coincidence that his international debut comes in the form of an elephant, which is the Gainesville school district’s mascot. He said his selection as one of the American artists for Elephant Parade confirmed his hope that he is on the right road in life as an artist.

As an art teacher, Freeman said he has nurtured his own artistic voice and encourages other art teachers to buck the stigma that art teachers can’t hack it in the professional art realm.

"Most art teachers are so taxed for their time and their resources," Freeman said. "I want to promote art teachers. I wanted to show that a normal perceived art teacher can contribute as much, if not more in some cases, to the art world. All I want to do is say, ‘Look, it’s possible. Hang in there.’"

Freeman’s wife, Nikki, has been instrumental in supporting his artistic endeavors outside the classroom, he said.

The couple took out a $7,000 loan to finance the cross-Atlantic trips that have jump-started the Gainesville artist’s international acclaim. Freeman has family ties to London and will stay with a cousin while completing the Elephant Parade project, he said.

The Quinlan Visual Arts Center also hosted a November fundraiser for Freeman that helped defray some of the $12,500 needed to participate in the project.

Once in London, Freeman used the elephant sculpture as a canvas for a motif that mirrors his own winding path.

He began his professional life as a jet mechanic in the Dutch Air Force, and then became a U.S. Navy pilot before realizing his passion for art. A survivor of two life-threatening car accidents, Freeman said his path has taken many turns in the classrooms of Gainesville Middle and Riverside Military Academy while working on his own stone carvings, paintings and bronze casts from home.

Freeman’s painted elephant design embodies the humanist struggle of finding one’s "utopia" in a hazy world where one struggles to forge his or her own path toward fulfillment.

"I wanted to show a jungle with vines and up through the legs is an actual maze and then it went to the step pyramids and then the pointy pyramids," he said.

For the artist with a heart for animal rescue, the opportunity to fuse art with saving his school’s endangered mascot is a career highlight. If previous Elephant Parades are any indication of how the event may positively impact the Asian elephant, Freeman can rest assured his big break also will benefit the beloved elephant and farmers touched by the charity’s habitat conservation and farm relocation practices.

In November, Elephant Parade Amsterdam 2009 partnered with Christie’s art auction house to generate 872,500 euros to support Asian elephant rescues in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Habitat loss and human-elephant conflict are devastating the elephant population, according to the elephant family Web site. The agency reports that a century ago, there were 200,000 Asian elephants but now there are only 40,000. Fifty percent of those losses have occurred in the last 60 years, the Web site states.

Elephant Parade London 2010 aims to raise 1 million euros to preserve the Asian elephant for the pleasure of generations to come.