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Saxonburg festival features work of Geraldine Freehling

| Thursday, Sept. 4, 2003

In the artistic life of Geraldine Freehling, there were no ifs, ands or buts. She said she wanted her paintings to be hung on a wall or be destroyed.

“I don't want my stuff lying around,” she said in an interview a few years ago. “When I'm gone, I don't want somebody looking in the attic and saying, ‘What's this?' I'd like to be remembered by my art.”

And she will.

The Saxonburg native, who had been painting most of her 84 years until her death in December, and who probably had captured the life and times of the community in more ways during more years than than any other Valley artist, is being celebrated this weekend in the town that she so loved.

The 18th annual Saxonburg Festival of the Arts on Saturday and Sunday is dedicated to her memory, and the Saxonburg Area Library is presenting a collection of privately owned paintings by Freehling from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

If Saxonburg had an artist-in-residence, it surely was Geraldine Freehling.

“There's a lot to paint. That's my hometown,” she said in a 1999 interview previewing her first one-woman show at the Saxonburg Festival of the Arts. “Nostalgia is there for me. You walk up and down the streets, the memories are there. It's really easy to see it in watercolor for me.”

Of the hundreds of paintings she had done of the borough, each was different, she said. “I don't want two pieces alike ever. I change the perspective or the season,” she explained. She estimated that she had painted the Roebling Park Gazebo, site of many of the festival activities this weekend, at least 20 times, each with a different eye.

“What gives me pleasure is when people look at a painting and say that's exactly the way they remember the scene when they were young,” she said. “If you want to make any scene into watercolor, you have to give it some substance so it isn't a glorified photograph.”

This wife, mother and grandmother, a former South Butler County School Board member, strong community supporter and former owner and operator of the Paris Restaurant in Butler, lived a life of substance.

“After you met her, you knew you had met someone distinct. She had a strength and uniqueness,” says Fred Gentile, owner of the Saxonburg Hotel, who had known her since he was a child. “It was hard to keep up with her. She enjoyed life; she lived life. She was very giving. She was strong. You didn't step over her. She was just a unique personality, just a wonderful person.”

Freehling loved the Saxonburg Hotel, which served as her personal gallery. Her family has requested that her work continue to hang in the restaurant.

“She was unbelievable with color. When she represented the hotel or whatever, it was magnificent color that really caught your eye,” says Carolyn Gentile, Fred's wife. “She loved the things she was painting. That really shows through.”

Her work hangs in collections throughout the United States.

“She was a very strong person. One thing I always got from her was the truth,” says Carolyn Gentile. “That was her painting, as well: the truth.”

In an interview in 2000, Freehling said she no longer was interested in entering competitions. “There comes a time when you can please others or please yourself. I want to please myself,” she said.

She continued to do both, say those who own and know her work well.

“Her hometown paintings made her special. I'm fortunate to have one of the house I lived in in Saxonburg, beside Roebling Park,” says Joanne Beechey, who is organizing the Freehling exhibit at the library.

Beechey is library board treasurer and a member of the Saxonburg Historical and restoration commission.

She says the spotlight on Freehling this weekend is most deserving. “She was an integral part of the festival since its inception and donated paintings to the library to raffle,” she says.

At a showing at the library in December, Freehling told Beechey, “Wait and see what I have in mind for you next year.” A few days later, she died.

“When I get into painting, I get into a world of my own,” Freehling once said.

This self-taught artist said she never needed inspiration. “When I was 7, I knew I would draw every day of my life. I have to do my art work. When I'm satisfied, I can go on with my day,” she explained. “When you are born with that urge inside you to do that, you can't resist that feeling. It's wrong to try. I don't try.”

Beechey believes that Freehling would love the idea of this weekend's exhibit. “She would love that people really care about her. To me, she is one of our most famous citizens, and she will live on in the paintings hanging in the homes and businesses. She was a neat lady. She was everything I wanted to be if I could paint,” she says.

Before her 1999 one-woman show at the Festival of the Arts, Freehling assured, “I will be there solid. I love to talk about my art. That's the story of my life.”

And it will continue to be told for many years to come.

Additional Information:

Festival highlights

What: Saxonburg Festival of the Arts.

When: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Main Street, Roebling Park (off Rebecca Street), and Fireman?s grounds areas of Saxonburg.

Cost: Most activities free; $1, quilt show; $3, Allegheny Brass Band concert at new Saxonburg Memorial Church.

Details: 724-295-0084.?Something for everybody• remains the theme of the Saxonburg Festival of the Arts.

Music, food, children?s activities, a 5K foot race and walk, art, photography and quilt shows, gas engine and antique tractor exhibit, historical presentations and more make for a full weekend. ?We have a very good line up of performances, close to 20 performances,• says Regis Schiebel, chairman of the fest?s performing arts committee.

The 28-member Allegheny Brass Band is returning for a 3 p.m. concert Sunday at the new Saxonburg Memorial Church on Main Street.

?We?ll be playing a mixture of show tunes, a couple classical pieces and big band music of the ?40s and ?50s,• says Al Duerig, who plays tuba in the Pittsburgh-based organization, celebrating its 20th anniversary.

?We?re a bunch of dedicated amateurs, some quite talented,• he adds. ?We?re modeled after a British brass band. We?re the amateur equivalent of the River City Brass Band, a professional group.?

He enjoys interacting with the audience, making music ?and blending with 27 other players trying to create something that will be attractive to listen to.?

The Balmoral Highlanders Pipe Band returns at 1:45 p.m. Sunday in Roebling Park, this time with Scottish dancers.

Making its festival debut is ventriloquist Helen Hammett and contemporary folk singer-songwriter Kenton Kovich, who entertain at noon and 3:15 p.m. Sunday in Roebling Park.

Saturday?s performances also include:

  • Knoch High School Jazz Band, noon to 1 p.m., Roebling Park.

  • Marco-Um Pa Octoberfest Bavarian Music, 1 to 4 p.m., Laurel Savings Food Court.

  • Little German Band with Don Battis, 1:15 to 2:15 p.m., Roebling Park.

  • PBJ&T Women?s Quartet strolling Main Street, 1 to 4 p.m.

  • Michael ?Doc• Dougherty Family Magic Show, 2:15 to 3 p.m. and 4 to 4:45 p.m., old Saxonburg Memorial Church.

  • Sting Rays Oldies Show Band, 2:45 to 3:45 p.m., Roebling Park.
  • Barrons Variety All-Era Band, 4 to 5 p.m., Roebling Park.

  • Generation Gap, featuring Ralph Goldinger and Loren Dee Faulx, 5:30 to 7 p.m. Roebling Park.

    Additional Sunday performances:

  • Marco-Um Pa Octoberfest Bavarian Music, 1 to 4 p.m., Laurel Savings Food Court.

  • New Orleans Riverside Jazz Band, 1 to 4 p.m., strolling Main Street.

  • History of early Saxonburg by Ralph Goldinger, 1:30 to 2:15 p.m., Old Saxonburg Memorial Church.

  • Harrisville Community Band, 2:45 to 3:45 p.m., Roebling Park.

  • Tady Bears, 4:15 to 5:30 p.m., Roebling Park.

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