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: