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RapidChat: Jeffrey Songco on making the leap from San Fran to GR, pushing boundaries with art & more

Five years after his very first ArtPrize competition, artist Jeffrey Songco took the leap and moved to Grand Rapids this past fall. An artist who was raised in New Jersey by immigrant Filipino parents, his artwork explores, as he describes, "a narrative of an anxious American guy celebrating a contemporary world of multiple identities." His work has taken him all over, but after being inspired by the people he met while participating in ArtPrize, he knew this city is where he wanted to start putting down some roots.

Five years after his very first ArtPrize competition, artist Jeffrey Songco took the leap and moved to Grand Rapids this past fall. An artist who was raised in New Jersey by immigrant Filipino parents, his artwork explores, as he describes, "a narrative of an anxious American guy celebrating a contemporary world of multiple identities." His work has taken him all over, but after being inspired by the people he met while participating in ArtPrize, he knew this city is where he wanted to start putting down some roots.
RG: How did you first hear about ArtPrize?
 
JS: I don’t remember how I first heard about ArtPrize, but I assume it was through a blog, or somewhere in national press. I apply to national competitions all the time, so this was nothing different.
 
RG: For your very first ArtPrize competition (2011), you entered a piece called the “GayGayGay robe”.  What is the story behind it?
 
JS: I made it for grad school originally, and I applied for the ArtPrize shortly after. It was fresh (I graduated in May 2011), but it wasn’t made specifically for ArtPrize.
 
The feedback surrounding the piece was really great. It was controversial, so much that Reverend Anne Weirich of Westminster Presbyterian Church created a panel discussion. She flew me out so I could be in Grand Rapids and talk about the concepts of the work; Anne knew there was going to be a discussion about it. In the meantime, I just thought I was shipping my artwork --  and that’s it. But she was smart enough to know that the artist's own voice would be important with this particular piece of artwork. Any artwork about LGBT, racial equity, religion and diversity is going to create controversy. It wasn’t the Michigan dunes; it was a something different.   
 
RG: What brought you back the following year?
 
JS: Because of the press coverage I got for the “GayGayGay robe," Kendall College’s curator wanted to me to create something for 2012, which resulted in “Hosanna” --  a tryptic piece.  The exhibition was called "Role/Play," and it was about performance, play and fun.
 
So I had this character that I had been working with… so I performed that character of the scene. The character was a host of a home shopping network television show. I love TV, so he/she was selling jewelry to the camera.
 
The character… I call them the “bag head” character. They are dressed in all white, so it is a play on being a white person. Due to the height of the bag, it could be representative of a Klan member. All my work focuses on race, sexuality and religion. I don’t think that “Hosanna” is making a huge statement, but I definitely toy with the idea.

Let's Dance America! (excerpt) from Jeffrey Augustine Songco on Vimeo.

RG: After participating in ArtPrize four times over the span of six years, what made you take the dive and move to Grand Rapids?
 
JS: It was install week during ArtPrize this past year. I made some friends at the UICA; everyone was just so nice. I also had a kind volunteer who let me stay at her home for the week. I felt like a true artist, and I just knew this is where I needed to go with my life. Things in San Francisco were also starting to wind down, so I knew I was ready for a new chapter.
 
Over those four years I really made some great connections. I knew that these were the people I want to spend my life with.
 
RG: Grand Rapids does have a pretty supportive art community!
 
JS: Yes, there are many exhibition opportunities here! I already have a show scheduled at the Richard App Gallery. At the end of the day, I can make the greatest work, but if nobody sees it, then that’s sad. In Grand Rapids I am showing artwork I am making. In San Francisco I had to struggle to make exhibition opportunities happen for myself.
 
RG: But you kind of had a shaky start?
 
JS: More or less. On Nov. 1 I moved to Grand Rapids. I moved to Eastown while my stuff was still in transit. I was basically living out of a bag, though at first I was living with a friend in northeast Grand Rapids while I was waiting for my stuff. But after a couple of days, I decided that I needed to find a home. I was sick of living out of a bag, so I bought a bed. I upgraded from full to a queen.
 
My very first night was spent listening to all the sounds of the apartment. While I was getting used to the building…. that was the night of the incident (a murder/suicide in Eastown). Afterwards, there was one night my upstairs neighbor dropped her shoe and it sounded like a gunshot, and I couldn't relax. I decided I had to move.
 
RG: I’m surprised that didn’t turn you away from the area…
 
JS: I like being busy, and I like doing work. Once you become comfortable where you are, I think anyone can say they get accustomed to their daily ritual. In San Francisco I was used to a certain lifestyle. I wanted to contribute more, but I didn’t know how to get involved.
 
During my visits for ArtPrize in GR, it inspired me to see what it could be like full time. I tried showing in San Francisco museums; I tried the opportunities the opportunities that were available. They were just not expanding.

You can check out more of Jeffrey Songco's work on his website and Facebook page.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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