Flights of fancy land Forman in Smithsonian museum
She celebrates connections among humans, animals and natural world
Fran Forman ’67 arrived at Brandeis in 1963 to what she remembers as a very politically charged campus that mirrored the larger activist culture. Although she had made art all through high school, she was convinced that being an artist was self-centered, that it wasn’t a way to change the world or make a political impact – values that Brandeis emphasized. She majored in sociology and took anthropology, American Studies and art classes with Benson Saler, Gordon Fellman, Louis Coser, Larry Fuchs, and Arthur Polonsky.
After graduation, Forman worked for a year at the Heller School with professor David Gil on a long-term study of child abuse, where she processed police reports and turned them into card sorters for the earliest computers. Not long after that, she earned a degree in social work from Simmons College and went on to work as a social worker at Cambridge Hospital’s drug abuse center.
All the while, she continued to make drawings. When she realized that she was more interested in the design of her office space than in the treatment of her clients, she began to question her career choice. Forman was being encouraged to pursue advanced education in substance abuse treatment and was offered a prestigious fellowship in the field, but she decided to turn it down and change the direction of her life.
Her first step was to sign up for adult education classes in sculpture, painting, jewelry-making and drawing. She also embarked on a trip around the world, which took her through Germany, France, Italy, and Greece and landed her on a kibbutz in Israel for nine months. There, Forman met an American who was a graphic designer.
She had never before heard those words strung together. His description of the field of graphic design convinced her that this was the work she wanted to do, so she abandoned her travel plans, returned to the United States and took classes in design. Always able to land on her feet, Forman took a job in MIT’s Visual Studies Department, where in exchange for cleaning the lab she was allowed to use the darkroom and other facilities at no charge.
Soon, she developed a portfolio of work that enabled her to apply to Boston University’s graphic design program, where she earned her MFA in 1977. Forman says that studying graphic design proved to her “that art is an effective method of communication, especially social and political messages,” so she didn’t have to give up art-making in order to pursue her passion for social justice.
Forman went on to work for Ben Thompson & Associates, prestigious architects who designed Faneuil Hall Marketplace and other urban marketplaces. She designed signage and branding for Faneuil Hall, an opportunity she loved. Gradually, she became an accomplished graphic designer and a mother, raising two daughters and working on a range of freelance projects. In the early 90s, she was approached by Brandeis’s alumnae office to produce some banners for the university, a project she has continued ever since.
In 1992, Forman was introduced to Adobe Photoshop, then a brand new tool for photographic manipulation. She was hooked immediately. Her freelance projects shifted to interactive and multimedia work; she designed interactive displays, electronic children’s books and a CD/ROM about Jack Kerouac. She became art director for the website Africana.com, a project of AOL Time Warner. It was only a matter of time before Photoshop became a main vehicle for her own art work.
In 2005, Forman attended a lecture at Brandeis’ Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC). Impressed with the aesthetics, the activism and the welcoming feel of the place, she applied to become a scholar there. She proposed working on photocollage projects, work she continues as a Resident Scholar to this day.
Forman’s current work celebrates the complex connections among humans, animals and the natural world. Last year, with a grant from the women’s center, Forman taught digital collage in the Fine Arts Department at Brandeis. She also teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and offers workshops and private lessons around the country.
Forman’s work is exhibited widely and is represented by galleries in Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and China, where she was recently selected as one of 30 American artists to be included in a traveling exhibition throughout the country. Her work is also in the collections of several major art museums.
Forman says that she is “delighted that photographic composites—once prevalent in the 19th century and later in the 1920s and 30s—are again recognized within the world of fine art photography” and are being exhibited in prominent galleries and institutions, including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Another WSRC scholar, Nancer Ballard, helped Forman craft a written proposal to the Smithsonian, which she submitted along with ten images that explore flights of fancy. The Smithsonian recently selected six of the 10 prints for inclusion in their permanent collection.
Forman’s professional career has dovetailed with Brandeis in many ways, and she credits the university with giving her opportunities to showcase her art and to work with students, which she says she finds quite rewarding.
Never content to stay still, Forman is now learning the medium of encaustic, which involves sculpting heated beeswax to which colored pigments have been added. It’s bound to add a new dimension to her already other-worldly work.