When words can't describe how Jenn Freeman feels and thinks, she turns to movement.
In the studio, she dances to a mixtape of music, spoken word and historical speeches. As her body moves, Freeman asks herself, "Does this feel good? Do you need to be pushing right here? What can you let go of? Where are you holding grief in your body? Who told you to move like that? Can you find a new way to enter?"
She can physically manifest her thoughts in many ways. Some of her movements are as complex as creating vibrations, praise dancing and repetitive motions, while others are as simple as sleeping.
Freeman's fine-tuned balance of vulnerability, praise, strength, sex, history and drag helps her create evocative performances fueled by her movement. She is one of 63 artists receiving a $50,000 cash award as part of the United States Artists (USA) fellowship.
USA is a Chicago-based art funding organization that financially supports artists across all artistic fields and at different stages of their careers nationwide. Recipients are nominated anonymously and can use the money for anything they need at that moment (rent, supplies, etc.) and/or for future projects.
Originally from Poplar Bluff, Michigan, Freeman entered the Chicago burlesque scene when her friend needed a last-minute sub at a show one night several years ago. Drawn to the creative expression and "DIY kind of culture," she fell in love with burlesque.
"Everything was a reflection of me. Nobody is choreographing this for me. Nobody was telling me what costume to wear," Freeman continued. "Everything the audience was experiencing was a peek inside of who I was playing."
Her burlesque persona, "Po'Chop", was inspired by Freeman's former dance teacher telling her to cut out pork chops, her favorite food, if she wanted to make it in the industry.
Freeman also wanted to use her name as a form of Black representation in art dominated by white, dainty femininity.
"I wanted to interrupt that vintage aesthetic," Freeman said. "It was important for me to show femininity in a way that was demanding, in your face, irreverent and uplifting my own Black femininity, my own Black womanhood and queerness."
At first, Po'Chop was Freeman's "superhero demeanor," which kept her pedestrian and nightclub identities apart—two different people with two different lives. Five years ago, however, she began merging both identities.
Freeman had been experimenting with contemporary dance and knew that Po'Chop's commanding presence wouldn't be accepted in that realm, so she felt that an acknowledgment of her duality would provide her with a new creative path and a new way of storytelling.
"It gave me permission to be more vulnerable on stage in another way," Freeman said.
She describes her current dance style as "burlesque meets drag meets spoken word meets church"
"It is rooted in the edification of Black women, femmes, queers," she said. "It uses media, culture, life experiences, grief, joy, literature and black history to tell stories."
Two elements sit at the core of Freeman's art—the Church and Black history.
Born and raised as a Christian, Freeman learned about the expectations for women in the church—mothers, caretakers, married to a man who is the head of the household—but she couldn't see herself with that future.
"It was definitely challenging to grow up as queer, especially feeling queer, but not having the words or the access to completely understand what I was feeling," she said.
While studying dance at Columbia College, she came out but was pulled out by her mom and stepfather, who is a minister, and forced to move back to Michigan. They would pray over her, making church, Freeman's refuge, a prison.
" It became a weapon used against me and my identity," Freeman said."It rocked my world for so long."
With help from her brother, Freeman was able to move back to Chicago. When she started dancing burlesque and was developing her artistic voice, Freeman said that she realized she needed to deal with her traumatic experiences to continue moving forward.
Freeman drew a lot of inspiration and comfort in Black history. She would spend hours deep in historical archives learning about Black artists and reading their work. She said she found artistic strength through the guidance of Black artists and creators from history.
"I'm not inventing the wheel," Freeman said. "This is already done. I can retrace their steps."
Frustrated by the lack of accessibility to Black history, Freeman created The Brown Pages, a newsletter to document and share her findings with subscribers. She also applies many interactive features to engage her audiences, such as visual art, written reflections and memes.
Her newest project, House of the Lorde, which opens Feb. 18, is an art gallery/dance studio/place of worship for Black queer women. She plans to hold monthly readings of Audre Lorde's work. Freeman will also be teaching burlesque classes.
She hopes that this new space can be a place of healing and education.
"I hope it's a place where folks from all walks can come and feel free from capitalism, white supremacy, [and] get as close to freedom as we can get," she said. "I hope that we can find it in these walls while engaging with dance and art and the lives and work of Black women."
Freeman plans to use the USA grant money to cover costs for the House of the Lorde and support herself to continue creating. She hopes to one day return to the in-person burlesque scene.
'When I'm performing and it hits—I'm feeling transcended. I'm feeling light and free and like, everything's like clicked in line. You're energy. Pure positive energy. It feels like I'm touching infinity," she said. "I want that feeling so bad."
To learn more about Freeman's work, see www.itspochop.com .