Irma Freeman had appropriate initials.
For a woman who used art to improve her outlook on life, the letters IF signify hope and redemption. Those initials appear on the intricate mosaic façade of the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination, a community center in Garfield opening this week that honors Irma Freeman’s life and work through art, education and community building.
The center will not only be a venue to showcase Freeman’s prolific output as a painter, but also to offers a unique space where area artists can show their work, and where local residents can take classes on many subjects, according to executive director Sheila Ali, an artist, educator and granddaughter of Freeman, who died in 1994 at the age of 90.
The goal of the center, Ali said, is to take a lesson she learned from her grandmother — that art can inspire confidence in people with difficult lives — and give it to the public.
“I think art is for everybody,” Ali said.
Born Miriam Gutel in Germany in 1903, the daughter of a traveling rabbi, Irma Freeman came to America in 1924, and married Louis Freeman, a magician and novelty goods salesman from Pittsburgh. The two settled in Shadyside.
Even though Freeman left Germany before the rise of Nazism, she didn’t escape tragedy.
She spent three weeks detained at Ellis Island following an on-board illness on her trip over. During World War II, she and her husband unsuccessfully tried to bring Irma’s cousin Ruth Porizky to America. Porizky eventually died in Auschwitz.
Perhaps worst of all, her 4-year-old son, Alphie, died in 1939 of encephalitis, after falling down a flight of stairs. Freeman was devastated.
“She didn’t talk at all for over a year,” daughter Sylvia Freeman Ali said. “And then, when her voice came back, it wasn’t her voice. Her voice had a different quality when she got it back.”
Although Freeman showed artistic aptitude early on and painted for the sake of painting, she also used her talent to combat the difficulties in her life, according to her daughter, Ruth Freeman.
“She would get depressed,” said Ruth, who also is an artist, “but when she painted it made her feel good.”
Freeman used fireplace charcoal to make her first childhood drawings, Ali said. In Pittsburgh, Freeman filled the walls of her house with canvases. After the war, she and daughter Ruth worked at Kaufmann’s, engraving quick portraits of patrons on sheets of copper foil.
Freeman’s paintings evolved over time. She began with realistic and restrained portraits in muted browns. But when Ruth began attending the Carnegie Institute, Freeman met Samuel Rosenberg, the influential local painter, and her work became more impressionistic, like the works of Henri Matisse and Émile Bernard, whom she admired.
Freeman became more prolific and imaginative in her later years. She produced hundreds of paintings after the age of 70, sometimes one a day, and didn’t begin showing her art publicly until she was in her 80s. Irma and Ruth held mother-daughter shows around town. In her later works, the elements of her life — her home, family, city and memories — appear in the context of fantastical settings colored by imagination instead of reality.
After her husband died, Freeman became even more prolific, moving for a time to Florida where she painted the Suwannee River. When she returned to Pittsburgh, she became a role model for Ali and her other grandchildren.
“They just put her on a pedestal,” daughter Sylvia Freeman Ali said.
The kernel for the Irma Freeman Center goes back to the positive response Sheila Ali got in 2003, when she curated a retrospective of Freeman’s work — featuring more than 100 original paintings — to honor the 100th anniversary of Freeman’s birth.
“We have this legacy of my grandmother’s art,” Ali said. “It’s more than 500 works of art. For a while it just sat in the basement. I wanted to make a museum.”
Instead, Ali decided to turn an empty storefront in Garfield into a community center where she could showcase her grandmother’s work and embody the spirit of her life.
Over the summer, the center held classes on a wide range of subjects, from art classes such as mosaic and puppet making, to green energy workshops and yoga.
A Brandeis University graduate, Ali spent years as a substitute teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools; she said she has taught at least once in every school in the system.
“I spent my whole life preparing to do something like this,” she said.
Ali, her friends and other local artists have been working on the facility for about a year, particularly on the ambitious façade: a mosaic of hand cut slivers of mirror and glass. They’ll open to the public Friday, Oct. 9, from 6 to 10 p.m. at 5006 Penn Ave.
Ali wants the center and the opening event to attract a diverse group of ages, backgrounds and types, noting that while the gala features some loud music, it comes later in the evening to let people with varying tastes have some mellower time with the art early on.
The exhibit is titled “The Art of Salvation and the Visionary Art of Irma Freeman,” and features a selection of Freeman’s paintings alongside the works of local “salvage” artists who turn discarded or second-hand materials into works of art. Ali said that philosophy embodies how her grandmother lived, redeeming her real life through creativity.
In that same vein, Ali wants the actual center to be a place of reclamation as well. The building uses salvaged materials for doors, windows and furnishing, and sustainable building techniques, including radiant floor heating and plans for green energy produced on site.
Ali said the art, the classes and the building itself all exemplify her grandmother’s spirit.
“For me, to transform an object is salvation,” Ali said. “It’s a spiritual act.”

(Eric Lidji can be reached at or (412) 687-1006.)