Fresh lumber lines the ceiling of Rik Freeman’s Northeast D.C. studio. New track lighting brightens the space, while plywood panels have replaced the original doors of the carriage house that a fire damaged.
The renovations signify much more than design improvements. The revitalized space in the Deanwood neighborhood means a fresh start for Freeman, whose career, along with that of fellow artist and friend Rafiki Morris, was upended by arson in the spring.
The March 25 blaze not only destroyed a structure, but damaged some of Freeman’s work and severely tested his health. Flames ravaged several paintings by Morris, who had stored his work there for more than a decade, and forced him to start anew.
Still, both men finally have good news as a tumultuous year closes. One just completed a mural commissioned by the D.C. government, and the other is waiting for the return of 25 pieces that were stolen while he lived abroad.
Freeman hung a wooden plaque on the studio wall, a gift from his younger brother, as a reminder to persevere.
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have,” it reads, crediting the words to reggae legend Bob Marley.
The early-morning fire ignited when someone torched a stolen Lincoln Town Car in the alley next to the carriage house behind the Olive Street home Freeman shares with his wife, Margarita Contreras. Clouds of reddish-brown smoke left behind a burned-out roof, broken windows and doors and water damage.
Smoke damaged about a half dozen of Freeman’s canvas creations, and he had to delay his work on a large mural for the city. Morris lost about a dozen works: Several disappeared into ash, while others were singed, smoked and waterlogged.
“The fire set everything back. I didn’t have a place to paint the mural,” Freeman said. “But it’s kind of like life: Lots of things set you back.”
The fire damage was just part of a turbulent period for both men. Freeman nearly died of a heart attack six months before, and the sight of the fire almost caused another, he said. It took months to rebuild the studio and deal with insurance claims. And his German shepherd, Vee, died this summer.
Morris, who recently moved back to the area after a 12-year stint in Trinidad and Tobago, lost some of his work to the infestation of a storage facility and theft on the island. During his absence, he had stored some of his paintings at Freeman’s studio and used the space to work when he came to D.C.
The fire forced Morris out of the studio, and he had to start from a blank canvas again, this time in Baltimore.
“It’s been a rough thing, with the whole Trinidad theft and the fire. That physical loss of them was very hard. That was like losing children,” Morris said. “I don’t know that I will actually ever recover from that.”
But now the good news. Freeman started painting again in earnest in August when he began work on two 5-by-8-foot mural panels for the Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center on Ord Street NE.
It took three months, but Freeman brought some neighborhood history to life in “Naturally Kenilworth,” depicting recreation past and present. There is a scene from a defunct racetrack along with images of a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool. And he immortalized Vee on a walk with Contreras through the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.
The mural panels were installed outside the center’s gymnasium earlier this month, Freeman said.
Morris said things also are looking up for him. His stolen paintings, which feature Trinidad’s culture in music and spirituality, were recovered and are en route. Early next year, he plans to exhibit those pieces and some of the fire-damaged work in the District and Baltimore, he said.
He also will return to painting and is eyeing a series that would “capture the African presence in different places in the world,” moving from “Genesis” on the continent to its impact across the globe. The paintings are inspired by the United Nations’ naming of 2o15 through 2024 the International Decade of People of African Descent, Morris said.
“I am actually painting again. I am excited about that,” Morris said.
Freeman is just happy to return to “meticulous” work in a space that can hold heat and has a roof. His next series, Bahia, continues the African-diaspora theme that inspires so much of his work. It will visualize the culture, history and vibes of the Brazilian state.
The fire leaves one final dilemma.
Freeman and his wife can’t decide whether they should keep the blackened walls and beams in a charred state as a reminder that they survived this trial or just whitewash the walls to erase a bad memory. Either way, they are grateful the fire did not do even more damage.
“It was a rough year, but we are still standing,” Contreras said.
Freeman responded: “There’s no stopping. Keep going. Always forward.”