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Q&A With Centre-fuge Curators Pebbles Russell & Jonathan Neville

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Damien Miksza (Left), Cern/Cernesto (Center), QRST (Right)
Centre-fuge Cycle 9; new works (L-R) by Damien Mikaza, Cern and QRST. Photos by Tim Schreier.

Last week, the Centre-fuge public art project debuted another series of murals at 1st Street and 1st Avenue.  As “Cycle 9” of the ongoing installation neared completion, we caught up with curators Pebbles Russell and Jonathan Neville to talk about the past, present and future of Centre-fuge.

Jonathan Neville and Pebbles Russell stand alongside artist Caroline Caldwell's new mural.
Jonathan Neville and Pebbles Russell stand alongside artist Caroline Caldwell’s new mural.

The 1st Street residents created the art program in 2011 as a way to brighten a block that had become a staging area for the 2nd Avenue Subway construction project.  Russell said the unsightly gray trailer used as an office for the subway contractor was ripe for a makeover. “We’re neighborhood people,” she explained, “so we just saw it every day, all the time, and the general consensus of people in this neighborhood was, ‘what the hell is this thing? It’s taking up a bunch of parking spots. It’s really ugly. It’s getting vandalized.”  The idea, Neville added, “was to take a blight and turn it into a neighborhood focal point.”

Russell and Neville, who tend to complete one another’s thoughts,  selected nine artists for the latest iteration of Centre-fuge.  They include Cake, Caroline Caldwell, Cassie Lynn O’Neal, Damien Miksza and QRST with collaborative pieces from Cernesto & Cekis and Korn & Roycer.   Many of those who have been featured in the past couple of years are well-known — others are new to street art.

Russell: We encourage and like to put on any and all types of artists and styles of work… You could be an at-home artist. You could be an art school student. You could be an old-school artist. You could be anybody, and I think that mixture of people and styles is something that really keeps it fresh and exciting. It’s great, also for artists, for us, for the general community to see work that isn’t necessarily in the forefront.

Neville: We encourage artists who might not see themselves as public artists or street artists or graffiti artists to push themselves, to recreate their piece on a larger scale.

Russell: A lot of times it’s kind of an experiment for them and for us and the collaboration that ends up coming out of it is really wonderful to see.

New York street art has, to say the least, changed a lot in recent years.  Once a renegade art form, it’s gone legit.  Russell and Neville talked about the transformation and the role Centre-fuge and other publicly-sanctioned arts organizations are now playing.

Russell: Change is inevitable in New York City. The way I see it, you can either add to and effect that change in a positive way or you can sit on you bum and complain about it, and personally I don’t really have room for people who just want to complain about it.

Neville: The direction street art has gone, people are maybe seeing as more mainstream, which might take away from the renegade edginess but at the same time it’s also affording so many more people the opportunity as artists to have their work seen. You can put your art work up in a gallery and how many people are really going to come to that gallery and see your art work? So I think being able to have your art in public view, I don’t know how you can complain about that.

In the short-term, Centre-fuge is already preparing for its tenth installation on East 1st Street (a new group of artists is selected every other month). The organization conducted a fundraising campaign in the spring to support more installations at other locations throughout the city.  They talked about the long-term vision:

Neville: We have grand plans for this project to exist, hopefully, past our lifetimes and really to have art work at every single construction site — every single container, trailer that is sitting in the street and, you know, making people’s lives just that much harder, finding parking that much harder, making the walk down the block, looking out their windows. If we could take all of those sites throughout New York City and turn them into outdoor, free public art spaces for everybody to enjoy — that’s really the goal…

Russell: A lot of people’s visual reference space is dominated by advertisements or things on the internet, YouTube, whatever, which is all fine and dandy but you don’t have to have a subscription to a certain publication or a membership at a museum to be able to see art, enjoy it, think about it, talk about it. Even people who work on the block will see us and always want to talk to us, you know, “oh, I saw this piece, I really liked it, tell me more about it. Who’s the artist?”

Neville: These children in this park (First Park borders the trailer site), every day, get to see art work and to see people making art, creating it and realizing, “hey, I do this in art class, I do this every day, I paint and now I see these adults who are still enjoying the process of making art. This is something I can do for the rest of my life, whether it’s a hobby or a job.”

Centre-fuge Cycle 9 will be on view through September 26. Photographer Tim Schreier was on the scene as the artists created their murals. See below for some of his photos:

QRST hard at work.
QRST hard at work.


Caroline Caldwell's "Ice Cream Taggers."
Caroline Caldwell’s “Ice Cream Taggers.”




Cassie Lynn.
Cassie Lynn.


Damien Miksza.
Damien Miksza.


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