Conversation Piece: Meet Jefre, The Filipino-American Artist Behind That Tall, Shiny, Newly-Installed Sculpture Along EDSA - Lifestyle Asia

His clientele includes the Sy family of SM, the Gokongwei family of Robinsons Malls as well as British billionaire Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic.

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Weeks ago, commuters were puzzled to see an unknown statue covered in tarp towering along EDSA. It went viral online as Filipinos wondered what it is—and what it is for.

SM Megamall recently uncovered this mystery, unveiling a 12-meter, mirror stainless steel sculpture. Called “Time,” it depicts a man looking at his watch. It is a fitting piece to install along a highway where commuters and motorists are often stuck in traffic.

Revealed to be the work of Filipino-American artist Jefre, “Time” is part of his first signature works from the Baks series which was named after the phonetic pronunciation of the word “box” in American English. Its figures are archetypes representing people who give life and character to cities around the world.

The sculpture has points established across the figure’s body and are then connected by polyhedrons that create complex three-dimensional planes. The box-shaped head is also an iconic part of the artwork as it establishes the figure as a symbolic expression.

Through Baks, Jefre shows that people are the building blocks of the city. By converting the statue’s head to a block, he connects the figures to urban architecture.

It has taken Jefre and his Beijing factory six months to a year to assemble the piece, which originally was only three meters tall.

“The whole concept behind this [work] is the idea of time [and] the precious value of [it],” he tells Lifestyle Asia. “Time is something you can never get back, [so] make the best of it as you can.”

He considers it as one of his most important works, too, “just for the fact that it’s the first time that one of my signature pieces in the museum was made into public art.”

With his much-discussed mystery-turned-meaningful work, just who exactly is Jefre and what are his other public artworks here and abroad that you may or may not have seen?

Proud Filipino

Jefre, or Jefre Manuel Figueras, is a first generation Filipino-American based in Jacksonville, Florida. His mom, a nurse, is from Santo Domingo, Ilocos Sur and his dad, an accountant, is from San Pedro, Laguna. In search of a better life, they both moved to Chicago, Illinois in the ‘70s, where Jefre was later born.

Jefre credits his parents for his knack for creativity and for teaching him the importance of working hard. His father, an accountant by profession, did landscape contracting and design on the side, while his mother, a nurse, did wedding flower arrangements when she’s not on her shifts.

He eventually attended the Institute of Art in Chicago, but ultimately decided to move on to urban design for a stable income.

“I started off doing a lot of city planning and park design, and it was really about creating space,” he says. “Within that space, it was also about understanding where art and culture would go, such as public art, in addition to buildings, amenities like a fountain, for instance, or something significant of that nature.”

But time wasn’t always by his side. At 35, Jefre—who worked at one of Chicago’s biggest architecture firms—experienced serious health issues.

“In 2008, I had a heart attack,” he says. “I had some stents to stop it. I later found out that [my heart] had a lot of blockages so I underwent triple bypass surgery.”

When he eventually recovered, Jefre asked himself what he wanted to do next and knew that the answer was doing something meaningful. He eventually left his job and started his own practice through Studio Jefre, cashing out his savings account to pursue competitions, to take a chance, and go big—literally—and create unique icons for cities.

“It’s the idea of going after legacy projects that got me to the point where I started creating my own little niche for myself—to create art that’s one of a kind as a public artist, and creating art about me for my studies of learning about public art and the people as a studio artist,” he says.

He has since worked on a wide range of projects, including community design, public art, parks and plazas, sculpture, temporary installations, interior design, avant-garde landscapes, eco-installations, and campus planning.

His earlier work, “Beacon” and “Code Wall,” which wraps around a parking garage in Orlando, “put me on the [design] map” and became a “stepping stone for me,” as Jefre likes to put it. The 60-foot-tall steel structure covered in 2,000 aluminum panels is hard to miss.

“It was inspired by the binary code with this shape of stethoscope and it’s got projection mapping on it,” he explains. “At night, the Beacon becomes a digital art work, like a live painting. The public art installation was later featured in The New York Times.”

Homecoming

Being able to do it elsewhere in the world, Jefre said it was only a matter of time and opportunity for him to create public artworks and icons back home here in the Philippines.

One of his earlier projects was for Robinsons in Naga, crafted using the same idea as his Beacon project. He considers it “special,” as he was also able to showcase public art to Filipinos in the provinces.

“We had thousands of people there [during the launch]. These people will never go to Las Vegas or New York to see this kind of technology,” he says. “I told the management, ‘Look, I can do stuff for your high-end malls but let’s go outside Manila. It’s my mission to bring art and do these giant icons to the people of the provinces.’”

Jefre’s other works in the country were seen at SM Aura in Taguig through colorful stainless steel installations of a carabao, rooster, and tarsier, all of which have been featured on the cover of Philippine Airlines’s Mabuhay magazine.

At Robinsons San Pedro in Laguna, his work, Heaven’s Gate, a mirror polish stainless steel piece filled with names, has also been displayed. The Filipino-American artist says both have been catering to the country’s selfie culture as well as effective branding tools for the malls where they are located.

Two fiberglass sculptures of Jefre’s are also on display at the Double Dragon Plaza in Pasay.

“This is a tribute to the hardworking Filipino,” he says, noting that the area is where many of the country’s BPO offices are. “It represents all the BPO workers. The figure wears a headset while the head mimics a globe, which represents this idea of Filipinos being a global resource to the world.”

His biggest project to date here in the country, however, is a 55-meter tall sculpture for Robinsons’s first township, Bridgetowne. Called “Victor,” the sculpture is expected to be the tallest in the Philippines.

“It’s almost the same height as the Statue of Liberty without the podium,” he says. “The idea of this is that we are a beacon to the world.”

Jefre considers himself fortunate to have done all this for his home country.

“Sometimes when you can work with a certain company, you only work with them,” he says. “I’m happy that I’ve been able to say that art should be for everyone.”

Award-winning artist

In his first year since starting his own practice, Jefre won a total of eight out of the 12 competitions he joined. “I was the fastest emerging artist in my debut,” he says, recalling a photograph of him looking “like a cocoon, ready to burst out.”

He has been dominating design competitions ever since.

Just last year, he won the competition for an opportunity to do an art installation at the Orlando airport. His winning idea was that of a giant boy flying a paper plane.

“It talks about the story about this little boy who grew up in Orlando that keeps coming back every year to go to Disney. He then discovers other parts of the city, says there’s more to Orlando, and then he makes his bucket list to see other things,” he explains. “It’s a nice honor again to be not only an artist, but a Filipino-American to do these large installations in airports that people would see from all over the world.”

His latest win is his design for what would be a new iconic landmark in Jacksonville. The 151-foot tall sculpture called Jax is set to be the centerpiece of a public Riverfront Plaza development. He bested two other finalists and hundreds of entries for his win.

But it is also proving to be controversial. About 13,000 people have signed a petition against it, arguing that it is “ugly,” that it is not understandable, or that it does not represent the city. The sculpture will cost about $11 to 18 million worth of taxpayer money.

While Jefre understands the sentiment, he also believes that Jax remains a successful piece of public art.

“The idea of an artwork is to create discussion and Jax achieved that,” he says. “If I’m creating something about my interpretation of the city, not everyone’s going to agree with that because I’m telling them what my point of view is, but they have to understand that this can also be an opportunity for tourism and economic development.”

Through the artwork, Jefre says people will naturally come there to see the piece, which then allows people to want to buy souvenirs or go eat at the nearby restaurants, in the same way that the Bean in Chicago and the Eiffel Tower in Paris have attracted tourists.

Booked and busy

Even when winning competitions is not on his agenda, Jefre continues to create art for everyone to see.

Just recently, he concluded a major solo exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art, the first Filipino-American to do so. Called Points of Connection, the show features his large-scale multimedia sculptures and immersive installations, as well as works that explore his immigrant identity, history with heart disease, and “common humanity across age, gender, ethnicity and nationality.”

Also shown in the exhibition is One Love, a mixed-medium piece featuring two seated figures placed back to back, as well as a block head that can project the features of visitors through a scan. British billionaire and Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson was a fan of this piece and bought it.

It was one of most well-attended exhibits of the museum—pre-COVID included—with almost 34,000 visitors in three months.

And there’s more to come. Next year, Jefre is coming back home here in the Philippines as part of a “plan to mount a major surprise,” which for now, remains a secret.

‘It’s Not About Me’

Jefre’s design heroes have one thing in common—they all express their creativity into different forms.

American artist Isamu Noguchi not only created sculptures and public artworks, he also designed stage sets and furniture pieces. Fellow American artist Maya Lin was just a student at Yale University when she won the national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She has also worked on sculptures and numerous landscapes. The likes of Michael Graves and Frank Gehry also worked on pursuits outside architecture.

“We’re all put in a box when we’re younger. Sometimes, even in design, architects are told they can only do buildings, engineers can only engineer, and landscape architects can only do landscaping,” he says. “For me, I wanted to do everything.”

Emulating his design heroes, Jefre has opted not to confine himself in specific art styles and mediums.

“I want the public art work to be signature to that city and signature to the people,” he says. “It’s about doing a piece that will let people know where the place is. And that’s also why I won a lot, because I wasn’t trying to give them art that I’ve done in another city and copy it. It’s always new.”

By “always new,” he also means working on a crown for Miss World USA.

“I was asked to do it,” he says. “The design was based on the globe, dissecting it, and taking that shape into a crown.”

The Filipino-American artist also does pieces that are “postcard memorable,” like his upcoming piece, Heart To Heart, in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Set to be unveiled on Valentine’s Day 2022, the 100-foot tall mirrored stainless steel piece is heart-shaped and comes with a balcony.

“They can create a lot of memories there as they’ll have the biggest heart in the world,” he says. “I could already see the amount of wedding proposals or engagements that could happen there.”

Jefre says he is honored to have done all of the abovementioned work.

“It’s a lot to accomplish at my age, and I’m trying to do more and leave a legacy. It’s valuable for me to make a difference,” he adds. “I think going through a heart attack really allowed me to say, ‘Okay, what have I contributed to this world or to society?’ Maybe that’s why I am going after these icons in the world. I’m not just doing small things. I’m leaving legacy pieces for not only myself as an artist, but also legacy pieces to the citizens and the people that live in each of these cities.”

Banner Photo from @jefre_artist on IG

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