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Sculpting Icons

Jefre Manuel on concept, culture, and context

An iconic monument has the power to capture the imagination of an entire nation. It stands proud within the podium as more than a work of environmental art, but as a three-dimensional manifestation of the ethos of a culture. Not only does it highlight the visual and technical skill of the artist, the concept is also representative of the artist’s own personal advocacy and reflections regarding the country, simultaneously exhibiting its rich past alongside modern issues.

For Jefre Manuel, this immense challenge is one that he faced head on. Born and raised in Chicago to Filipino parents, Manuel has been making waves in the international art scene through his impressive portfolio. Unlike other artists, Jefre’s medium is not confined to palettes and paintbrushes. Instead, he is concerned with conducting a meticulous orchestra that showcases his mastery over light, context, and innovative materials to create site-specific artworks that effectively transform city landscapes.

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  • The Beacon and the Code Wall at Lake Nona Medical City in Florida
  • Unity Plaza, the largest public art project in San Antonio
  • Sculpture Contour Series at SM Aura
  • Jefre Manuel with the Talking Heads permanent installment at SM Ecom 5

He is more than a visual artist; he is concerned with designing a community experience. His creations are striking, dynamic, and interactive, becoming a distinct character that evolves and participates in its very setting. Its beauty is both independent of and heightened by its environment.

“It’s the pieces that have the most public interaction that I’m proud of. Successful public art is the ones you engage in versus walking by,” says Jefre, before adding heartily, “and of course the sculptures that provide the best selfie moments.”

As with most artists, Jefre’s inclination started when he was young. He says, “Just like most of us as a small child where exploration of form, materials, and expression were never judged.” The freedom of creation captured his young mind and, even at an early age, despite pressure to opt for a legal or medical career, he already knew he was destined to enter the design profession.

Though he initially meant to pursue his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, pragmatic concerns got the better of him and he went on to Ohio State to study Urban Design and Landscape Architecture instead. “My father was a developer/contractor and owned a large garden nursery and originally had plans to move the business into a design build practice,” he says.

His skill and creativity were evident and after college he became a fast rising star in his field working for established firms such as Skidmore Owings and Merril as well as with notable leaders in the industry such as Santiago Calatrava, BIG Architect’s, Zaha Hadid, and Philippe Starck.

His career was on an upward trajectory until fate drastically rerouted him, in the form of a heart attack at the age of 35. Following a triple bypass surgery, Jefre began to reflect upon his work and decided to consolidate his knowledge of architecture with his love for art to create groundbreaking and monumental projects that serve as a testament to his imagination

“I’m always a student in life and being associated with masters in their crafts is always an honor. Working with the masters in architecture and design, I’ve learned about the process of communication and it has to be a performance on its own. (And the importance of being able to) clearly and simply share your idea and process and having passion for your work,” he says. “As I moved into the art world, my work was always about understanding context, culture, and how that can influence materialism and form.”

After his recovery, he went on to study Morpho-Ecologies at the Architecture Association in London. “Morpho-Ecologies is about understanding that the beautiful forms in nature at both perceptive view and microscopic view are only the result of the organism’s ability to survive. It really draws on formations based on functionality that can be expressed into site-specific sculpture and art.”

Site, context, culture, people—these defined the creative philosophy of Jefre who, upon returning from his studies, developed his own practice, StudioJEFRË, and gained a steady name for himself through competitions where he bested hundreds of other environmental artists across the US, being a finalist in 12 and winning eight in just his first year. The visionary proposed bold, daring, and one-of-a-kind projects that garnered notable distinctions and became a key player in the economic development of the areas in which he worked in.

Today, his works can be seen in Miami, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and across the Atlantic to London and Abu Dhabi. His most recent work, The Beacon and The Code Wall, has drawn flocks of people to Lake Nona’s Medical City in Florida. The modern work was inspired by technology, society, and medicine and led Jefre to initiate the foremost digital museum, working with notable international artists.

He has since been recognized by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as the Consultant of the Year for 2016 and as an Up and Coming International Public Artist by the Marlborough Gallery in New York City. He has also been honored by the 2016 nomination of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum Award under the “Design Mind” category.

The artist derives most of his inspiration from the location and through research. He is also heavily influenced by developing technologies, constantly driven to look for pioneering ways to apply these emerging trends to his craft. His never-ending explorations imbibe his work with freshness and originality and, furthermore, he is able to successfully utilize his artistic passion to create a sustainable business model that allows him to remain authentic and reflects his determination to never compromise his artistic integrity.

Jefre is now in the process of reconnecting with his roots, through a joint project with The Net Group. He is in the midst of creating a sculpture entitled Selfie that is set to be one of Bonifacio Global City’s most attention-grabbing piece. In addition, he is also working with the SM group, being commissioned for permanent art sculptures at SM Aura (Sculpture Contour Series) and at SM EcomCenter (Talking Heads). These works will have strong nationalistic elements, celebrating iconic symbols of the Philippine culture.

As he continues to explore the Philippines through his projects, Jefre delves deeper into the culture the context and the people and continues to be an unstoppable creative force to be reckoned with: “Art is a new form of democracy and protest,” he reaffirms, “It’s a way to create public installations in a more civil creative outlet. I’m hoping, one day, to create a city’s iconic landmark. If I say Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, The ‘Eye,’ Statue of Liberty, Leaning Tower of Pisa, you know what city these iconic monuments are located in. I hope to create such a monument for Manila.”