C.J Freeman: Illustrating Cards

For this post, we’re passing the writing baton to Ana Cortez, who will talk about her very talented father, C.J. Freeman.

Growing up I always adored my dad, C.J. Freeman. He was my hero. But as I got older, I began to slowly understand why all the other adults I knew were pissed off at him most of the time. He just couldn’t bring himself to do anything ‘normal’.

C.J. Freeman

C.J. Freeman

Dad led me into worlds and ways of thinking and looking at the world that I remain eternally grateful for. He spent time with me, doing things most adults don’t make time for. Like by the age of 5 or maybe 6 years old he had taught me how to play a decent game of chess. I remember thinking I was pretty rich, earning a quarter for for each line memorized in Lewis Carroll, and I’ll never forget learning how it was so much better to sit at the back row of the circus, where you could fold the pages of your program into paper aeroplanes and send them flying over everyone’s heads in the front row.

Dad had been collecting really weird antiques from as far back as I can remember. No matter which corner of the house you came around, you knew some bizarre gorgon or another would be waiting for you. So when dad started painting, of course, it wasn’t nice landscapes or flowers or anything like that. It was Dracula, and people who were half animal with purple skin – reminiscent of figures from the weird fairy tales he had told me as a child.


Dad got bored really easily. Ordinary life was intolerable for him. So he would assign himself projects that kept his interest. So even though he had no formal experience in art, he had given himself the task of illustrating the playing cards. This was what the paintings were about – one for each of the 52 cards plus jokers. Little did he realize this little “project” would kick off an obsession lasting for the rest of his life.

Guardian for web jpeg

So what began happening on the canvas surprised even my dad. As he painted, he became more and more curious about playing cards themselves – which led to another self assigned project. He began researching – hunting through old book stores in search of information about cards. To quote my father, “There is little with such cultural significance we know less about than playing cards.”

Over time, dad had just about every obscure book that could be had about playing cards. He was writing letters and corresponding with the authors that could be contacted and basically became a playing card detective. A playing card freak. He wanted to know the theory about cards, their mutations over time, and what they could have possibly been created for. He had a few ideas of his own. And he started writing.

He couldn’t get over the fact that playing cards were a natural calendar (52 cards = 52 weeks of the year, 4 suits = 4 seasons, 13 cards in a suit = 13 weeks in a season,) and he felt he had a mystery to solve. He wrote an entire novel on the subject of fortune telling with playing cards. He claimed it was the spirit of an old black woman that dictated it to him, but I could never tell if he was actually kidding around or not. I don’t think so.

Early Morgana jpg

He wrote several screen plays on the same subject, a television series pilot, and an outline for an interactive theatre experience, all centred around his ideas about playing cards and the way they speak. After mailing out manuscripts and walking his portfolio around New York City, and hitting a lot of brick walls, his feverish passion began to wane.

He became disappointed and disenchanted, although the flame of his obsession was still quietly burning. “Card people” still hung on large canvases around his Victorian style apartment, and he was quietly teaching girlfriends how to “read,” using Polaroid photos of his paintings cut up and glued onto regular bicycle playing cards. He would coach them, dress them up, and help them get “gigs” reading cards. One of his girlfriends took the time to show me what she had learned, and that was the beginning of my own involvement in this whole crazy project. I had just graduated high school at the time, and it was really just a curiosity, although a fascinating one.

Years later, I got serious about picking up and learning my dad’s way of looking at the playing cards. I was living in Boulder, CO, and dad was in Denver. Cards gave us more reasons to hang out together, and we started spending lots of time on the phone. Hours at a time in fact, sometimes days, talking about cards. Dad had stopped making art since the completion of his original assignment, but this was rekindling his interest. He started illustrating cards again.

K Hearts copy

It was fascinating to watch as his style progressed and mutated over the years that followed. He drew hundreds of images for cards. What began as a wood block type style progressively became sleeker and more sophisticated, but always what showed up was original. There was always something unexpected on the kitchen table, which was his work space. He said he liked to “let his hand move” and see what came out.

At the end, Dad was very sick. You knew he was sick if he was watching TV. He hated TV, but now it seemed to be always droning on in the background. He was in bed almost all the time. He told me “a voice” was visiting him, telling him stories. He called it “the story teller.” He said the stories were fabulous, detailed, on subjects he had little or no previous knowledge of. Stories he could never recount. He told me, for example, of a particular story about a ship told from the viewpoint of a sailor, detailing wondrous specifics about ropes and knots of all sorts. He said the stories were so good, he would clap when the voice was finished, there alone in his bed.

To date, there are 2 published versions of C.J. Freeman’s art work for playing cards, and snippets of his writing in our collaborate work, “The Playing Card Oracles.” For further information, please click here.


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