His canvas has been concrete block. His medium has come in an aerosol can. Omaha street artist Gerard Pefung has worked, primarily, on the street.
Painting a mural of faces above the 13th Street Coffee sign in the Old Market. Helping create the red-sky mural behind the CASA social services building at 24th Street and St. Mary's Avenue.
He turned the eastern wall of a north Omaha auto body shop into an arresting scene of man and machine. He gave a drab gray park building in Norfolk, Neb., a four-sided mural makeover. He transformed an 8-foot-by-8-foot sheet of plywood at a recent South Omaha street festival.
Now some of Pefung's smaller, less-public works are moving indoors to two major galleries, in midtown Omaha and Norfolk.
This won't be the first time his paintings have been on display inside rather than on the side of a building.
The dual shows — Norfolk Arts Center in July and Modern Arts Midtown in August — give credence to the work of this 26-year-old native of Cameroon.
They offer important exposure beyond the community groups that already know him well: as young talent Gerard, handy with a can of spray paint. As social worker Gerard, willing to mentor and lend a hand. As bridge builder Gerard, friend to illicit taggers and graffiti police alike.
Artist Larry Roots, whose job is to scope out talent and promote it at his two galleries, Modern Arts Midtown at 36th and Dodge and Modern Arts Midwest in Lincoln, sees him as an artist on the rise with “a smoking trail.”
That trail began in Africa, offering Pefung a story as interesting as his art.
Pefung was born the second of six children in Cameroon, a relatively stable African country. His father is an attorney who wasn't around much. His mother is a nurse who was.
As a child Pefung listened to American hip-hop and drew comic-book heroes.
His mother moved to the United States on the promise of a better life and the understanding that her children could join her. She landed in Omaha and worked as a nurse's aide, saving money for airfare so her children could join her.
Gerard was among the first of his siblings to arrive. He was 15 and entered Benson High with the usual teenage trepidation about identity and fitting in.
It helped that Pefung spoke three languages, including English. It helped that Omaha Benson had a diverse student body — a fellow African student from Togo befriended him. And it helped that an art teacher there recognized Pefung's passion and encouraged it.
“She noticed my hunger and my desire for the art. She fed me,” Pefung said.
After graduating from Benson, Pefung kept painting and drawing as a hobby. He earned money by cleaning floors and by chaperoning children on school buses.
Some co-workers commissioned paintings from him, and Pefung obliged.
He realized art was his calling and wondered if he could make a living from it.
So Pefung worked with organizations that needed artists or mentors, such as the Kent Bellows Studio. He teamed up with Omahans as diverse as African ex-pat writer Ruth Marimo on a children's book project and City Councilman Garry Gernandt on anti-graffiti (the illegal kind) efforts.
He found a mentor: glass artist Thurman Statom, a transplant from Los Angeles working in Omaha.
Then the New BLK — an ad agency and art gallery — invited Pefung to display his art.
This is how Pefung met the Norfolk Arts Center program director.
Melinda Kozel was looking for an artist to redo a city parks building there. She sold Pefung to skeptical Norfolk city officials — “they heard 'graffiti' and it really freaked them out,” she said.
Pefung worked with Norfolk junior high students and finished the four-sided mural in April.
“We had people say the most positive things,” Kozel said. “We're really happy with it.”
Pefung said he is interested in art as process. He calls it a live “conversation” between the artist and the viewer.
He draws from his African childhood, the smells, the colors, the noise, the juxtaposition of ancient and modern in the still-developing Cameroon. He draws from American hip-hop culture and the stylized letter-writing and attitude-showing characters.
His studio holds stacks of spray paint cans and lots of books: On Leonardo da Vinci. On graffiti. On surviving as an artist.
To be an artist, he said, is to risk your life. To put it all toward what you feel and want to express.
And then it has to be good.
“It only gets noticed,” he said, “if it's good.”
A lot of Omahans have noticed. Earlier this year, the Omaha Entertainment Awards named Pefung best emerging artist.
Said Shane Bainbridge, an owner of the New BLK: “He's hyperprolific. He's everywhere.”
Said graffiti-hating Garry Gernandt: “He's marvelous.”
Said Larry Roots, the artist and gallery owner, standing before a dozen Pefung-made faces, each different, each painted or drawn on a piece of 9-by-12 paper: “I picked them because they're exceptional.”
And not just to show at his gallery in August.
Roots bought two of them for himself.
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