NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - Karen Freidt wasn't thinking about couture or kudos in late May when she dug out a mixing bowl, spoons, milk and blueberries and started to bake.
She wanted comfort.
Freidt had spent weeks weakened by pneumonia and at times couldn't walk through her Newport News home without losing her breath. While she wasn't sick with COVID-19, she was certainly sick of it, and had to turn away from the news while being stuck at home.
On this day, her search for comfort got her thinking of pie. Of course, Freidt being Freidt, she created something more.
It was a dessert - delicious, fruit-filled, tender crust - but different in Freidt's hands. Freidt learned to art about the time she learned to tie her shoes. Creativity has always been her secret ingredient. She has been able to visualize beauty in the most benign items, at the most necessary times.
Her pie emerged hot and syrupy from the oven covered with a flaky garden of golden-brown flower petals, twisting stems and leaves. She took a photo and shared it with friends on Facebook and Instagram. It made her happy. It made them happy. She made more.
By the end of the summer, Freidt was having to think about kudos, couture and so much more.
Freidt's first bakes got passed around on social media like her pies did among her family and neighbors.
The images caught the eye of internationally renowned fashion designer Anna Sui who was pulling together her Spring 2021 collection in the sequestered confines of a pandemic. Sui was also in need of comforting inspiration.
Sui printed out pictures of the pie and tacked it on her inspiration board and developed a clothing line called "Heartland." Sui tracked Freidt down and asked if she could use one of her desserts as part of her fashion show. On Sept. 15, Sui's virtual New York Fashion Week debuted, and one of Freidt's pies made a grand appearance within the opening seconds.
Critics were talking about "the pie" as much as Sui's homespun line that included pastels, flowing dresses and comfy sweatshirts. "The pie" got a mention on Vogue.com. Designerzcentral.com effused, "Turns out, not all pie crusts are visual equals, and Sui couldn't resist working one of the exquisite desserts into her narrative. You can't wear Freidt's blueberry miracle, but boy is it photogenic."
The Daily Beast was just as enamored: "Probably nothing could stop Anna Sui, a NYFW perennial, from showing her eighty-forth collection at the event....It opened with a close-up shot not of a floral embellishment or embroidery detail, but a damn delicious-looking pie."
The invite for the online show describes why Sui selected Freidt. She compared her work to artist Charles Burchfield, who was known for his genius with watercolor.
"To complete the mood, I discovered the artist Karen Long Freidt on Instagram, who made the most incredible pies you have ever seen! She is baking one just for us, with a crust that brings me back to Burchfield, with stylized daffodils and daisies, budding hope for a better future."
A week later, Freidt is still in disbelief at how and why her baking spree has landed the NASA retiree in the same glossy pages with haute couture and celebrity gossip.
She is using the attention, though, to add to another delectable she's baked up: Raffling off one of her pies and handmade dish towels for charity through a fundraiser with the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank. People who donated $25 for the fundraiser, which ended on Tuesday night, got their names entered into a raffle. Every dollar raised equaled four meals, according to the foodbank.
The winner, whose name was drawn Wednesday, got a blueberry pie, towel and ice cream. Freidt said the foodbank also got donations from outside of the area from people who have bitten into what she's selling and want to help. She raised more than $3,200, which was another one of Freidt's plans.
"I've always wanted to use my art to help people," she said.
Freidt grew up in Hampton and Newport News, the daughter of a father engineer and mom, Ethel Long, a popular local painter. Freidt often trotted beside her mother to art shows. Freidt studied art in college, worked at an ad agency, and then spent more than three decades at NASA as a print and web designer, communications specialist and a team facilitator, specializing in helping people be more creative in their work.
Freidt said she learned years ago that fear can kill motivation like bad apples can ruin a pie. Getting people to chase their fears instead of running from them became her mantra. It was a necessary part of being an artist, too.
In the middle of her career, raising two daughters, divorcing and remarrying, she painted and modeled odd and whimsical figures out of cardboard, resin and found objects. Her husband, Wade Mickley, is also an artist and works at NASA. Freidt's work has been in more than 70 exhibitions throughout the state, including solo shows. Freidt even found time to produce a coloring book.
One thing she never found time for, ironically, was baking. When it came to a work or family potluck, Freidt was given soda or "bring-the-paper-products" duty.
"I was always the one who tried to get out of baking," she said. "I just didn't have time."
Last fall, however, Freidt decided to retire to find the time for things she always wanted to do. After the first of the year, she took an improvisational comedy class. It was days after she graduated in March that the world started shutting down because of COVID-19. She also got sick.
The spring baking was comforting and being creative chased away the anxieties brought on by confinement and illness.
As she posted photos, she realized her friends needed the uplift, too. Freidt loved playing with the dough - it was another medium.
She played with cookie cutters and then fondant tools to create different shapes. She experimented with recipes that wouldn't allow the fruit filling to bubble over and ruin her canvas. She learned how to change the temperatures and when and how to apply foil on the crust to prevent burning.
She learned that ready-made pie dough was better than trying to perfect her own. Recently she started using food coloring to paint her pie sculptures. Each pie can take three or four hours to make, which is why Freidt isn't interesting in selling them.
And, she also doesn't want to sell them because making money isn't why she started making them in the first place.
When she got the Facebook message from Sui in August, she didn't believe it was the fashion icon. She asked Sui for confirmation and the two exchanged phone numbers and chatted. Sui wanted one of her pies, but it would need to be brought up to New York for the shoot.
Freidt only had two weeks to develop the promotional materials and prepare the pie. Freidt didn't hesitate.
"Anna asked me, "Are you sure? You don't need to think about it," Freidt said. "I said, 'no.' Most of the things that happened to me in my life happened because I didn't think about it for too long. You work really hard and you jump on opportunities quickly. You have to celebrate the doing, not perfection."
Freidt spent two days working on two identical pies, building structural towers of dough within the filling to make the desserts edible but jiggle-resistant for the long drive and traipsing around New York. Freidt's daughter Rachel, who lives in New York, happened to be in Norfolk for a wedding. Rachel babied the pies during the hourslong drive to Manhattan.
Freidt's is now working on a book about pie sculptures that she plans to release next year. She also started working with block printing and creating embellished tea towels. Several of her pieces were recently accepted into the 2020 Virginia Artists Juried Exhibition at The Charles H. Taylor Visual Arts Center in Hampton this month.
"This has all been crazy but it makes me feel not so alone with all that's going on at the moment," she said. "I realize how important it is to put who you are out there. When you are authentically out there you never know how you're going to connect with others."