EDITOR'S NOTE: April 15 is World Art Day, so we're bringing you this article from March 29 about Seattle's Stefan Frei, not only a high-level goalkeeper, but a talented artist as well.
SEATTLE — As the MLS hiatus continues and people around the country are encouraged to practice social distancing, Stefan Frei is doing what he can to keep himself as close to game shape as possible.
The Seattle Sounders goalkeeper has a treadmill, weights, a medicine ball and a pull-up bar that he’s using to train from home, and while it can’t replace the reps he’d be getting at an actual training session, he says he’s feeling as close as he could hope to the condition he was in before the MLS season was suspended after just two weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After he’s done training, though, Frei has time on his hands, which is where the famously multi-faceted goalkeeper’s interests outside of soccer come in.
“With the self-quarantine starting, for me it was immediately almost like an offseason where I don’t have a game on the weekend,” Frei told MLSsoccer.com over the phone on Friday. “So, let’s get to work. Let’s knock some stuff out.”
Growing up in Switzerland, Frei found himself enamored with the street art and graffiti on underpasses and freight yards during his train commute to school and soccer practice. That inspired him to start drawing, but mostly as a side-hobby.
That changed in 2009, when his mom and brother got him a pen tablet that allowed him to draw digitally. Frei is also an avid gamer, and video games used to be his main means of escape from the often-stressful life of a pro goalkeeper. But as he began to take art more seriously, he found it offered similar benefits.
“I quickly learned that with the stress of being a professional athlete, it was a really nice outlet to kind of rebalance myself,” Frei said. “When there was difficult times, [it allowed me] to spend a couple hours completely separated from that, maybe from a mistake I had made.
“I can focus on this line or this opacity and how this acts with that, and just completely forget about everything else. It really helped as a professional athlete in terms of staying healthy mentally. As the years went on I decided at this point I could be self-taught, I don’t have to go to college, I can just make it my passion and educate myself and try to further myself as an artist and that’s what I’ve done.”
Last year, Frei started his own company called S24F and established a website to feature his work, which he describes as “geometric subtraction" -- a style reminiscent of the type of street art that inspired him growing up.
Mike Fiechtner/Seattle Sounders FC
“I’ve never really been fascinated as much with drawing photo-realistic paintings or things like that, I’ve never actually been good at that, I’m horrible at it,” Frei said. “What fascinates me more is expressing what’s in your brain and being able to do that with no restrictions. I can put onto a canvas or a piece of paper what I feel or makes sense to me, it’s just my brain on a paper in a way.”
As a goalkeeper, Frei is obsessively detail oriented — part of playing a position that has precious little margin for error. In between the posts, an entire game’s-worth of good work and amazing saves can be undone if he loses focus for even a single moment.
When it comes to creating artwork, Frei says it’s a mentality that transfers over, just in a different way.
"A huge aspect of me as a person, which I think comes from the soccer side, is the precision when I start adding geometric shapes and the subtraction with the white,” he said. “I’ve been a goalkeeper for so long, and there’s no room for error. You try to pay attention to the utmost detail. I think that’s made me in part who I am as a person. I’m a perfectionist. … It’s the never-ending quest [for perfection] that fascinates me.”
Mike Fiechtner/Seattle Sounders FC
While art has helped Frei practice social distancing personally, he's also using his gaming and creative interests to try to help the community.
He and players around the league, including teammates Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan, have used the app ShotCall to have video game streaming sessions where fans can pay a small fee to play games like Fortnite or Call of Duty with the players. The Sounders players have then contributed those proceeds to the club’s COVID-19 Relief Fund.
Frei also spoke of an approaching collaborative project with Roger Bennett of Men in Blazers, where they’ll each create a work that will be auctioned for charity.
And some of his studio sessions are quite physical. One piece he's working on is on a six-foot canvas that demands a range of working positions from standing on his tiptoes to squatting close to the ground. He recently spent one session six hours straight working on that piece.
“Once you get out of that zone it hits you and your body is exhausted,” Frei said. “It’s taking advantage of not having to worry about the games right now, and I certainly appreciate the fact that I have as an introvert naturally I have those hobbies and those passions that I can do on my own right now in the safety of my home, secluded from everybody else.
“So I’m definitely blessed when it comes to the current situation and with what they’re stressing with social distancing that I can follow my passions nonetheless.”