Jeff Beler and Frankie Velez have brought together artists and a community to create something beautiful to the corner of Underhill Ave. and St. John's Place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Recently I asked them a few questions about themselves, their project and their outlook as curators.
Lets start with a few words describing yourself:
Jeff: I’m 53, born and raised in Pittsburgh, moved to LA to pursue acting in 1985 with a detour to Phoenix, back to LA then SF where I came upon Psycho City and started documenting a 21 year old Sloke One. We became fast friends/roommates. I moved to NY in 1995 and landed a creative job with Ralph Lauren. I have over 25 years in Window display, Showrooms, etc., I am a recent graduate of Alpha workshops with a degree in decorative arts and resident of Prospect Heights for 11 years. My first curated wall was on Washington Ave with Meres, See One, Daniel and NME. I have a passion for beautifying the area with street art.
Frankie: I see myself as easy going, funny and a straight shooter.
What is your personal definition of an artist?
Jeff: Anyone who is creative. If you are a chef, a florist, a writer, or a painter. An artist is expressing yourself in a positive way to provoke emotion.
Frankie: My personal definition of an artist is someone that conveys a story or mood thru his or her creative outlet, but remember art is subjective and sometimes that one piece of art the artist made has different interpretations to the individual viewing it.
What lead you to be a curator?
Jeff: I've been the curator of my life since I was young. I knew what music, art and interiors I wanted in my space. I grew up in a creative family where art was encouraged. I like putting artists together, like when I do one of my collages.
Frankie: I became a father at a young age and was raised to always provide for your family, so for many years I worked in the corporate retail business, but always having one foot in the creative arts, as a professional dancer, then becoming a music manager to up and coming rappers and RnB singers, to promoting night clubs all over NYC. In 2007 I got tired of the retail corporate world and decided to listen to my artist friends and come work with them in the custom toy business, and freelance sales of anything an artist produced from a custom toy, to a art inspired tee shirt or some art inspired jewelry, and eventually art on canvas. I was lucky to have these celebrity toy designers and artists as friends. From there I started to do my homework such as reading art related books and magazines like Juxtapoz and Hi Fructose, they became my bibles. I started going to all the contemporary art galleries and networking my ass off and befriending curators, artists, and gallery owners. Once I shared a table with a well known street artist (Abe Lincoln Jr) at an art convention and he told me "Frankie I been in this business 20 years and you came out of no where" my reply was "I did my homework Abe. Lol!". Fast forward ten years later and I feel blessed to still be relevant in this crazy art world. In my ten years in the art game I've seen many curators, gallery owners, and artists come and go.
What do you look for in the artists that you work with?
Jeff: I look at their style, work ethic, attitude, and if they are a team player.
Frankie: First the artist has to be approachable and friendly. I will not work with an artist that has an attitude problem and complains a lot. Once we pass that phase I study their work. When I do a walk thru I need to see where the artist was with the art, where he or she is at the current moment, and what their art is going to be in the future, (their vision). As a curator and broker I need to see that their art has a potential to become profitable. We all would be lying if we said we were not trying to make a profit out of the art. Art is a business and many depend on it to pay the bills.
How did the Underhill Walls project come to be?
Jeff: Underhill Walls came to be as a rotating art installation. . Frankie and I were friends before we collaborated on the Zodiac Love Heals project. http://observer.com/2015/10/love-heals-foundation-dedicates-brooklyn-mural-project-to-aids-activist-alison-gertz/
Frankie: Two years ago my co-curator Jeff Beler approached the owner of the property and asked him if we can use his walls for murals.The owner said "I'm not planning to sell the property anytime soon, feel free to use my walls." For our first curation we teamed up with a non-for-profit advocating HIV/AIDS awareness for inner city teens. We had a zodiac theme and gave each artist a zodiac sign to paint. Some of the artists involved were UR New York, FUMERO, Zimad, and many more. That project created such a big buzz we ended up going to NBC studios to get interviewed on a news segment and received a proclamation from the borough of Brooklyn. For the current walls we decided to let the artists go in and have fun with it.
How did/do you choose artists to participate?
Jeff: I curated 11 shows in a year and the timing was right to do something new. I asked Frank for help and we said no theme, no drama. I had been in a show with Sacsix, Hektad, and Angry Red. Albertus, Jeff and JT are my rocks so of course I wanted them. Frank picked the rest, Dirt Cobain was a last minute addition.
Frankie: I look for artists who are hot in the street art scene, but I also choose emerging and mid-career artists. Some of the artists I choose I might have previously curated in a gallery show and many approach me thru social media or a recommendation by a fellow artist to get a space on the walls.
What has the neighborhood’s reaction been?
Jeff: The neighborhood has reacted so positively. The interaction with the kids and families is what I get out of the experience the most. When I paint on canvas I’m alone in my studio, but street art is interactive. It's a rush to make someone’s day or impact a mood. The people who live around that block and stare at it everyday thank me constantly. It is the gift that keeps giving.
Frankie: Oh wow! The neighborhood has been thanking us for beautifying the area and the reactions of all the children that walk by are priceless. Being a dad that makes me really happy.
What do you see as the future of Underhill Walls?
Jeff: The future of Underhill Walls depends on the sale of the property. We will do one more installations in the fall, art through the winter and see what Spring 2018 brings. Frank and I are working on other possible walls in the area. We have been approached by many organizations.
Frankie: I wish we can keep the walls forever, but unfortunately one day the owner will sell the building. Until then we see the Underhill Walls as being the next hot spot for street art in Brooklyn. My goal is to have international street artists painting on our walls.
If you could tell artists one thing that they could be doing to further their careers and work with curators, what would that be?
Jeff: As an artist myself I would tell anyone looking to work with curators, have a thick skin, be professional, don’t take it personally when not selected, it’s timing. Paint or create everyday, be true, practice. As you know, the art world is very small and sometimes it doesn't work. I was not taken seriously when I first started but I did my time from LA to SF to Sao Paulo in the street art scene.
Frankie: Stay consistent with your art and never burn bridges. Wait that was two things. Ha!