Fil-Am artist Jefre is making his mark through modern sculptures

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 20 2021 12:08 PM

Jefre likes to create
Jefre likes to create "postcard moments" through his public art. Handout

This Filipino-American artist is making his mark in a big way -- through eye-catching public art pieces.

Jefre Figueras Manuel, more popularly known as Jefre, is known for crafting modern sculptures in cities around the world. His most recent work is the "Time" sculpture along EDSA, which went viral on social media early this month.

By 2023, residents and tourists in Jacksonville, Florida will see another masterpiece by Jefre: a 151-foot stainless steel sculpture. The public artwork spells out different words and phrases, depending on the angle. 

ABS-CBN News recently got the chance to have an online interview with Jefre, who is currently based in Orlando. 

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q: Can you tell us how you feel now that your work is set to be an iconic landmark in Jacksonville, Florida?

"The sculpture is part of a competition in which design and architecture firms had submitted proposals for a park development project in Jacksonville, and each proposal was highlighted by a public art sculpture. If you read up on the Jacksonville competition and the firm of Perkins & Will (which I represent), you'll see that we were actually outnumbered in terms of scores, but the public art sculpture I designed helped us win. 

"It was great to hear that the City Council felt that the design I created had the potential to become iconic and be remembered. Of course, since the project was awarded to Perkins & Will, there has been some controversy surrounding the sculpture because many people misinterpret the symbols or the actual sculpture -- but I wanted to create a series of forms that represented the city and its history well. The fact that they see it that way really validates my vision."

A rendering of Jefre's public sculpture in Jacksonville, Florida. Handout
A rendering of Jefre's public sculpture in Jacksonville, Florida. Handout

Q: Can you share with us the inspiration behind your design? What were the things you took into consideration, and what was the creative process like?

"What I try to create I like to call 'postcard moments,' in reference to the most memorable moments when visiting a certain place. It's interesting because branding and social media play in today's world. And when people see a place, they like to take a selfie to immortalize the moment or create a memory. There's this idea that a place is constantly evolving because of the people who come there, and it's beneficial for the place to have an icon to commemorate it. 

"The design for the Jacksonville competition is inspired by the city -- and by it being an anchor city. There are many allusions to Jacksonville being the gateway to Florida, but also to it being a city with a long history of shipping. With this sculpture, I touch on the people who grew up in Jacksonville, their love for this city, and the history of the St. John's River. I wanted to pick up on the idea that water is a carrier of memories and the guardian, so to speak, of the history of cities, not only the past, but also the present and the future.

"But I did not want to just create a sign, because then it would be one-dimensional. I wanted to create a sculpture that you can look at from different positions and where you do not just see one thing, but a hundred different things each time. I really want my sculptures to become part of the skyline of the city they are in.

A rendering of Jefre's public sculpture in Jacksonville, Florida. Handout
A rendering of Jefre's public sculpture in Jacksonville, Florida. Handout

"As for my creative process, most of my work is about the psyche. I try to understand the people and culture in the cities I spend time in. This understanding is followed by sketches and a clay model, then a foam model, and then it's on to the large-scale works. As an urban designer and planner, it's my job to work with cities and ask: 'What is your landmark? Where is Central Park? Where is Ayala Triangle? What is your Eiffel Tower? Because for me, my job is to create your Eiffel Tower.' I believe if there is a landmark that represents a city, people will want to visit, see, and experience it.

Q: Aside from the Jacksonville project, your "Time" artwork along EDSA was also recently unveiled to the public. Can you share the story behind that, and how you feel that your work can now be seen by many Filipinos every day?

"This sculpture is part of a series I created for my solo exhibition, 'Points of Connection' at Orlando Museum of Art. Baks is all about the points of connection in the body that create these kinds of fractal figures, and the box shapes are substitutes for buildings. So, every city in the history of public art is really about buildings, but it's also about the emotions that you find in different cities. All of these sculptures (from the Baks series) are named 'Passion, Love, Joy, Happiness,' and when you put all of those emotions together, that's essentially what I think makes a great city.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by JEFRE (@jefre_artist)

"The Time sculpture along EDSA is to convey to people the idea that time is money and represents the value of time. When I proposed this to Mr. Hans Sy of SM, I said that time is something that we can talk about in Filipino culture because there's such a thing as Filipino time, which isn't necessarily positive, but it could start a discussion on how much we as a people actually value time. Also, it's on EDSA now, and we all know that we're always stuck on EDSA. How much time do we waste while in traffic?"

Q: You've made a name for your public artworks in different parts of the world. But when did it all start for you? What made you decide to become an artist, and how has the journey been?

"I started off trying to be in medicine, but it really wasn't something I was passionate about. Born and raised in Chicago, I'd take a few courses in sculpting at the Art Institute of Chicago. I eventually went to Ohio State University to study urban design and planning.

"My first career in urban design and landscape architecture was in the '90s. I worked for a big architectural firm, SOM (Skidmore Owings and Merrill). One of my first projects was a photo documentation and survey of an old train station that became Millennial Park in Chicago. The park project brought in quality designers like Frank Gehry and Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa. That was the first time for me to interact and engage with these artists and this artwork that, thanks to social media's development, quickly became mainstream. We were just diving into selfie culture then.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by JEFRE (@jefre_artist)

"If you look at the last few centuries, there are amazing works of art out there in the world, but a lot of them don't necessarily engage people, they just pass by. In contrast, these new sculptures that you see now are sculptures that have become destinations, back to the days when you think of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. Monuments and icons that were once gifts to other countries or dedicated to certain events kind of started to fall off in the 20th century, because everyone was wondering how they were going to pay for it.

"With the newer sculptures and the ones I do, there's an interest in making sure that the icons I create for cities actually pay for themselves. There's art with a ROI (return on investment) that you can turn into an investment that you haven't seen before in artwork because it's this idea that if my artwork attracts visitors, then it generates buying power so they want to come there and buy and do other things."

Q: What, in your opinion, is the role of art during a pandemic?

"I think art lets you pause in life to reevaluate the things that matter most to you. I think we sometimes forget to take a breath and do the things we enjoy, especially now during the pandemic. Sometimes we get into a rhythm that is no longer inspiring, and our lives become more and more programmed. 

"During the pandemic, art has helped me refocus, I look at what my work and studio is about. The museum show I did, the pop-up shows, the future tours -- it allowed me to focus on making more art for myself."

Q: Any advice you’d like to give to Filipinos who wish to follow in your footsteps as an artist?

"The best advice I would give is to stay true to your passion and enjoy what you do. That success is just a state of mind, that it depends on what your goal is. Especially in the art world, it's not necessarily about money -- it's about things that have to do with humanity, with social responsibility, with questioning what's considered normal or not normal. I think a lot of my art isn't about giving provocative answers, it's about sparking a discussion.

"In addition to improving your craft, take as many technical classes as you can. But also learn how to talk about your work. I think the hardest thing some artists have is that they don't have the communication skills to tell a story about what they want to convey to their audience.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by JEFRE (@jefre_artist)

"Another thing is to understand the business -- you can't just have a left brain, you've got to have a right brain. I have benefitted a lot from understanding the business of art and knowing how to make a living, while always trying not to be the lead artist. That's the best advice I can give to aspiring artists.

"Oh, and understand what other creatives are doing and how that can affect your own work, whether it's in theater, film or literature. All of these things can influence how you represent your own work verbally and visually."

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