ORLANDO, Fla. – Much like his artwork, Filipino American and Orlando-based artist Jefrë is larger than life.
The artist currently known as Jefrë, born Jefre Figueras Manuel, is a worldwide phenomenon known for crafting life-size public art pieces in cities like Manila, London, Abu Dhabi, and most recently, Orlando.
The Orlando Museum of Art installed the last remnant of his first ever solo exhibit, Points of Connection, on May 6. The One Love statue, displaying figures giving two different hand gestures for love, featured a multimedia element that allowed guests to put their eyes up to a retinal scanner to be projected on the statue. In its eight-month run, the kiosk captured over 18,000 eyes.
“It’s the idea that no matter where we are, no matter what demographic, race, gender, it’s all about love,” Jefrë said. “And what you see up there is that because of COVID, we’re now all seeing each other not through our full faces, but really through our eyes.”
The piece was part of a larger exhibit, featuring six interactive and immersive galleries exploring Jefrë's experiences with immigration, COVID-19 and healthcare.
“It was actually one of the first times a Filipino American has gotten a solo exhibit in a U.S. museum,” Jefrë said. “Back home in the Philippines, I’ve actually been getting a lot of press for ... opening the door for Filipinos — not only Filipino Americans, but Filipinos in general — for providing opportunities to be in institutions to talk about their work. So, it was a good honor for me.”
Jefrë touched on his own heritage the only way he knew how. With 10,000 pounds of rice.
“The idea (of the rice fields) is that you can actually walk through these and then create your own path,” Jefrë said. “The rice field paths are actually arranged in 13 to represent the U.S. flag.”
Old songs from his hometown, often used as a soundtrack to the Filipino water dance, accompanied the giant Rice Field installation, further connecting Jefrë to his roots.
“It’s a dance my mother would do with glasses of water to kind of pray for rain. It’s really a traditional dance that they do in the Philippines,” Jefrë said. “We had some sort of amazing heritage days where Filipino Americans and other Asian Americans came out to kind of embrace the idea of Asian Americans and immigration and how we are perceived or what we want to accomplish mining the American Dream here.”
But Jefrë said the installation was bigger than the Asian American story. It was an immigration story, an idea he drove home in Heart to Heart, a poem he co-wrote with Erin Gilbert that followed the audience through all six galleries.
Stanzas from the poem, which Jefrë deemed “the heartbeat” of the exhibit, lined the walls and explored how immigrants must leave family behind in their search for better lives.
“No matter what demographic or region you’re from, we all come from the same idea of finding a better life. And America has provided that for a lot of us,” Jefrë said. “And so coming here to the U.S., I think we all are provided those opportunities. But then it’s really up to us as hard-working immigrants to kind of continue to work hard to actually achieve success, depending on what your definition of success is here.”
Jefrë's immigration story is only the beginning of his success. After a heart attack in his 30′s, he graduated from his nine-to-five life of urban design, planning and landscape architecture to creating landmark art across the globe, including two halo and ER sculptures on AdventHealth’s Winter Park campus.
“So, help create an Eiffel Tower, an Arc de Triomphe, the Statue of Libert, the Arch, the Bean. That’s what my job is now... to help cities to create icons,” Jefrë said. “I’ve been creating artwork that’s not really about me, but about the city and the context it’s in. And it’s funny because I started off in the large scale world and had to compact to figure out how to fit in a 15-story ceiling.”
He discussed his heart problems in his Points of Connection exhibit, displaying the 57,000 pills to represent his decade-long relationship with the medicine that sustains him.
While Jefrë's next projects include creating the world’s largest heart sculpture in Port. St Lucie and working as a finalist on Jacksonville’s waterfront project, he’s not leaving Orlando any time soon.
“What COVID has done is help me reconnect with Orlando a little bit and actually Florida in general,” Jefrë said. “I think COVID grounded me and grounded a lot of us.”
Jefrë has multiple Orlando projects in the works, hoping to put the City Beautiful on the map for something more than its theme parks. He loves Orlando and Orlando loves him back.
“We are fully supportive of Jefrë, in terms of his ongoing global initiatives, and how we can help (with) that,” said Aaron De Groft, director and CEO of Orlando Museum of Art. “I think it’s very important to take an internationally significant artist that happens to reside at least part time in our community and support them.”
Jefrë prides himself on being an artist for the people and creating public art that is accessible to everyone. Whether it’s drawing on his roots and experiences or his background as an urban planner, he refuses to let that inventive spark die.
“In terms of the art world, if you have great ideas, if you have great passion, it shouldn’t matter what ethnicity you are. The work will shine on its own,” Jefrë said. “But in terms of my own personal work as an Asian American, it’s nice to kind of help communicate to the viewers sort of some of the struggles that got me these opportunities to be here, whether it’s related to my heritage as a Filipino American or related to my issues with healthcare.”