Tag Archives: Gerard Pefung

Reggie LeFlore’s Street Art

March 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, artwork images provided by Reggie LeFlore

His portraits may share similarities to the vandalism-tarnished genre, but for LeFlore, his art form is all about transforming communities.

“I love working with organizations and community leaders to create a series of work that’s out in the public,” explains LeFlore, who works primarily in portraiture. “My portrayals can help uplift an otherwise drab space with art.”

LeFlore’s mission started from humble beginnings, including art classes at Benson High School where he would meet his friend Gerard Pefung. After high school, LeFlore’s aspirations to illustrate cartoons and comic books led him to pursue graphic design while Pefung went in a different direction. A chance meeting years later would lead to LeFlore’s first foray into street art.

“I go to a party, and I see this massive indoor mural and Pefung is standing in front of it,” LeFlore reminisces. “I find out that he created it, and I’m flabbergasted. At that moment I decided to take my craft and elevate it by jumping into public art.”

Leflore would pick up an aerosol can for the first time at Pefung’s studio, eventually developing a signature style remixing existing images with his hybrid stencil method. He became acquainted with community art organizers—including folks involved with Benson First Friday—and he started to pay more attention to public art and murals around town. With his desire to showcase his art, LeFlore participated in shows at The Union of Contemporary Arts’ Wanda B. Ewing Gallery in North Omaha and exhibited in Chicago (in a gallery and on the street). But he longed for an international platform.

After admiring constant social media posts about Hong Kong’s street art scene from a Nebraska friend (Craig Schuster) living in the Chinese territory, LeFlore became determined to showcase his art there. With income earned from personal commissions and teaching at The Union of Contemporary Arts, he was able to move toward his goal with a trip to the former British colony.

“I did research and found that I didn’t need to know Cantonese or Mandarin to live in Hong Kong,” LeFlore says. “It made it easy for me to adapt, and I utilized my time there to build opportunities and meet my friend, Hughie [Doherty], who owns a screen printing shop in Stanley, Hong Kong.”

During the day, Stanley is a busy seaside marketplace with a labyrinth of shops selling clothing, trinkets, and toys. When the neighborhood shops close for the night, a vibrant street art scene emerges. Artworks reveal themselves, painted on the shutters of local establishments.

Schuster, his Nebraska expat friend, introduced LeFlore to a local arts nonprofit called HK Walls. HK Walls “aims to create opportunities for local and international artists to showcase their talent in Hong Kong.” The nonprofit helped LeFlore with resources in Hong Kong, introducing him to Doherty and a host of local street artists. From there, LeFlore set off to create his masterpiece amongst the shutters.

A collaboration with Schuster led to “Kowloon Influence,” an art piece depicting Tsang Tsou Choi, a legendary Hong Kong graffiti artist (known as the King of Kowloon) who spent decades scrawling his family’s ancestral claims to Kowloon—a large portion of Hong Kong’s land area—in calligraphy that he painted on public walls throughout the bustling city.

In order to pay homage to the King of Kowloon, LeFlore made stencils of Tsang Tsou Choi’s calligraphy and combined them with a friend’s referenced photographs creating a surreal portrait on a city street.

LeFlore’s recent move to the Twin Cities has immersed him in Minnesota’s own thriving visual arts community. While his girlfriend, Heather Peebles, pursued her Master of Fine Arts at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he linked up with a comprehensive group of like-minded creatives.

“I still keep my connections in the Big O,” LeFlore says. “I consider Watie White as a mentor, and my cousin, Joanna LeFlore helped me establish my style. The Union for Contemporary Art has also been amazing.”

LeFlore is in the process of pursuing a collaborative project with Omaha photographer Alicia Davis, but here is where street art clashes with the rebel spirit of graffiti. Their project has run into some unexpected roadblocks.

“The graffiti artist in me says to stop asking for permission, come down, and get some stuff up there,” he says. “North Omaha should have a bigger public art presence. The conversation behind street art is what makes it cool, and I’m sure it could help reinvigorate the community.”

Visit ral86.com for Reggie LeFlore’s personal website.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

Hugo Novelo’s Apartment

April 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The socio-economic fabric of Omaha makes a complicated tapestry of diverse skeins intertwining in various degrees of organic, from architectural masterpieces to working-class family neighborhoods converging around art from the street to the Bemis. Southwest of the 11-Worth Cafe is an apartment that’s not just a home for one man and his toddler, but also to a healthy cross-section of Omaha artists.

Hugo Novelo is an Omaha art lover. For two years, he’s been turning his apartment into a gallery of ever-increasing legitimacy. It began as a barter on the cusp where street artists live. 

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“I started collecting art about eight years ago,” Novelo says from his perch in the kitchen where art is made as often as food. “An artist friend got kicked out of his place after a break-up and asked me to help him move. I gathered up all his stuff, but there was no way I could mail all his art. It would have cost a fortune. So I gave him 70 bucks for about five pieces and we called it even. That’s how my collection started. Now, I meet a new artist every week and I’ve got about 325 pieces of local, Omaha artwork.”

Novelo says he began feeling guilty for keeping so much art to himself and decided, in true Omaha style, to collaborate. With the help of his salon full of experienced artists, he began selling a few pieces a week through a Facebook store, lending out art and doing the occasional pop-up. Meanwhile, he encourages young artists, buying supplies in exchange for finished art or part of the profit. It all happened organically. Now when the neighborhood skate kids stop by to look at the art, they meet a weird artist or two, and think about creating.

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Depending on mood and occasion, 50 to 60 artists live on Novelo’s walls. The majority of works are stored in the basement, which is why Novelo does not advertise the address. One has to know Hugo, contact him through social media or be delivered by a mutual friend to see what he has in the kitchen and around the enormous mural by artists Stephen Kavanaugh as well as norm4eva and Andy Garlock, the muralists responsible for the makeover of Leo’s Diner. Other noted Omaha talents represented are Randi Hunter, Très Johnson, and Anthony Brown.

Novelo’s face lights up talking about art because for him it’s not just about commerce or a pretty picture. Hugo’s pieces are vibrant, personal and plentiful, but they are—more often than not—made by his friends.

Bart Vargas, respected painter and UNO art educator, reviewed Novelo’s collection recently and, after touring the vaunted basement, says: “Novelo is a passionate and active local art collector snatching up works from many of the areas, unknown, outsider, and up-and-coming street artists,” Vargas says. “I was surprised to find early gems from regional artists Stephen Kavanaugh, Reginald LeFlore, OaKley, Joel Elia Damon, and Gerard Pefung. I predict it will be interesting to watch this collection develop, as these artist’s careers evolve and develop. Who exactly knows what hidden gems Hugo has in his collection?”

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Figuring Things Out

September 23, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

On a recent Monday evening, 28-year-old artist Gerard Pefung sits on a white, retro-modern fiberglass chair in the living room of his first floor apartment. The modest dwelling also doubles as his art studio, leaving every room lined with large blank canvases, hung finished projects, and works in progress. His front door is open to let in fresh air and to allow the sounds of the breeze and cars passing by to seep in. Pefung is laughing; his body vibrates in eagerness as he talks about why he believes every day holds great potential.

“I’m going to learn something new today!” he says after introductions. “I’m going to meet someone new today! We’re going to talk about our frustrations, and talk about our excitement, and we’re going to talk about how we’re surviving!” The corners of his smile don’t reach his ears because—and only because—the flesh of his cheeks could never be elastic enough for the maneuver.

For this artist, life’s greatest moments revolve around human interaction. He craves and cherishes it. As an accomplished mixed-media artist and muralist, Pefung uses a spray can to express his love of almost childlike wonder for life. It makes its way onto every brick and every inch of an empty wall or canvas.

Born in Cameroon, West Africa, Pefung says he had a “pretty cool” life back home growing up—all because of his mother. When Pefung was a teenager, his mother was given the opportunity to bring her family to the United States.

“She had to make the decision to abandon her security,” he says.  “Because she had a good job, she was a nurse, her friendships, her comfort, owning a house, and all these things she had worked her whole life for. She had to abandon all of that just so she could make sure her kids have whatever they can achieve.”

While attending Benson High School, Pefung’s passion for art steadily grew. He said his parents would’ve preferred he be a doctor, or a lawyer like his father. It was after his father’s death in 2012 that Pefung says he started to re-evaluate life choices.

“I feel like it gave me a drive, a determination,” he says. “It already existed because I’ve always been curious, but it just made me start asking the ‘whys’” of it all. “Why am I doing this? Why am I doing that? What really matters? Does my family matter? Do my friends matter? What matters to me is those around me. I don’t think I’m ever going to stop asking that question. I have questions and I have choices. And that’s where I develop my character.”

Decision-making about some of life’s toughest questions may build Pefung as a person, but making choices in front of a live audience builds his career.

His favorite art setting is one where an audience can experience the process of him creating in real time, and he’s participated in numerous live art events. He goes in fairly prepared for what he’ll create, but says he feeds off the energy and curiosity of spectators while he executes an idea.

During such an event at the Summer Arts Festival, Pefung says organizers asked him not to use his signature spray paint. It didn’t bother him at all. Instead, he went to work in acrylics. Members of the audience soon approached as he worked. “They came up to me like, ‘What are you doing?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m trying to figure that out myself! I don’t know!’ But at the end it’s going to be…something. I enjoy that encounter every single time.”

What really blows Pefung away is the idea that not only do people love his work, but that they also want to own it.

“I have a bunch of people say that they own a piece of my work,” he beams. “That’s amazing! Like, whoa!” Pefung says in disbelief, his eyes wide. His hands reach up and press against his temples as if they have the power to spur deeper thoughts. “I’m still trying to figure this out, what I’m doing. But you’re like ‘I like that!’ That speaks to me.”

He takes the same enthusiasm, passion, and expertise with him in his work with inner-city youth. Pefung says they’re often simply misunderstood. “This person, he’s not a hell-raiser,” the artist says in gesturing to an imagined student. Instead, he says, “This person is not being understood for the type of person he is or she is.” Through art, Pefung says he can give kids self-awareness and the confidence that comes with it.

Pefung’s tone grows more serious. “You put them in places that they never would have imagined. And that’s awesome when you can have a connection like that with kids who are sometimes a little bit different from you. But they’re really trying to figure things out.”

Just like the rest of us.

Watch a video of Gerard Pefung here:
http://vimeo.com/103542323

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Old Buildings, New Art

November 3, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since Omaha was founded nearly 160 years ago, many of its older buildings have seen their demise. But in at least two of Downtown Omaha’s historical structures, creative artists and imaginative entrepreneurs have replaced staid bankers and burly beer makers, enabling these pieces of history to continue on with a new purpose.

Carver Bank

An abandoned building near 24th and Lake streets became a renovated space this year for:

  • Artists in residence. Visual and performance artists receive workspace and a $500 monthly stipend for one year.
  • Art. Exhibitions, events, and workshops are available for youth and adults.
  • Participation. A cultural and economic resurgence is happening in North Omaha.
  • Environmentalism. Finishes inside are mostly made of salvaged and recycled materials, such as a gymnasium floor from a decommissioned school in Panama, Iowa.
  • Delicious food. Big Mama’s Sandwich Shop is open till 4 p.m. every day but Sunday, even serving a roast-beef sarnie called The Carver.

Carver Savings and Loan, named for scientist George Washington Carver, opened in 1946 as Nebraska’s first African-American bank. Vince Furlong, who conducts walking tours for Restoration Exchange Omaha, says that the bank closed in 1966. After housing several nonprofits, the building shut its doors in 2006.

In 2010, Hesse McGraw, then chief curator for Omaha’s Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates began talking to people in the neighborhood about the needs of North Omaha, according to Jessica Scheuerman, program coordinator for the Bemis Center.

After two years, McGraw and Gates decided to renovate the abandoned Carver Bank building. They wanted to spearhead a program with an emphasis on visual and performance artists of color or who are North Omaha-minded.

Patricia “Big Mama” Barron, the eponymous owner of the sandwich shop, says the neighborhood was excited about the renovation that began last year. “People would come by and talk about how happy they were to see something go in there.”

The Carver Bank building is owned by the City of Omaha and leased for $1 over five years to the Bemis Center, which renovated and programs the space.

The artists’ program fits in well with the City of Omaha’s long-range, public-private plan to revitalize North Omaha, focusing on the 24th and Lake Cultural Arts District.

The building’s renovation is a good example of recycling. Framing lumber torn down during the building’s demolition was reused to frame new walls. Says Barron: “I’m a person who believes in recycling things, and I hate to see old buildings torn down. That’s a part of history being torn down.”

Anheuser-Busch Beer Depot

The stable is gone. The ice house is gone. Even the beer vault is gone. All were destroyed by a fire.

What remains is a quaint, brick building that was an office when the brewery’s complex was built in 1887. At 1213 Jones Street near the Bemis Center, the building has housed The New BLK (pronounced Black) advertising agency and art gallery for three years.

“‘The new black’ is a term in fashion for the next hot thing,” says Brian Smith, who gives his title as connector, catalyst, and co-conspirator.

The building was remodeled in 1988 by its current owner, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, which had offices there before moving. The architecture firm added a mezzanine loft area for nonprofit offices, and the space is still set aside for that use. “A recent example was Aqua-Africa, which builds wells in South Sudan,” says Smith.

The New BLK spreads out on the main level in a modern, open, workspace. The advertising firm also runs an art gallery on the lower level, featuring emerging artists.

Gerard Pefung, born in Cameroon, is one such artist who exhibited his work at The New BLK. “He recently did a mural installation at Omaha Police Headquarters,” Smith says. “Some of our partners are active artists and some have managed artist studios in Europe.”