Talking Two Years of Centre-fuge Art with Co-Founders Pebbles Russell and Jonathan Neville [INTERVIEW]

Posted on: February 13th, 2014 at 10:29 am by

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Pebbles Russell and Jonathan Neville, Co-founders of Centre-fuge

With Cycle 12 now upon us, we break bread with Centre-fuge co-founders Pebbles Russell and Jon Neville to discuss the second anniversary of the Lower East Side endeavor (the name was inspired by the classic “nexus of the universe” Seinfeld episode from 1998). Our feet are frozen, and some climate-controlled shelter is necessary. We duck into Tuck Shop for refuge, but needless to say, the tiny eatery is itself nippy. George Harrison is fittingly singing through the stereo about the ice “slowly melting” with the arrival of the sun. Hopefully this karmic interaction has more validity than the recent shadow readings of Punxatawny Phil or Staten Island Chuck.

Centre-fuge was “need based,” Neville says of the project’s founding. The Department of Transportation mobile trailer had been placed directly in front of First Park in summer 2011 as a forward office in the rehab of East Houston and preparations for the Second Avenue subway. Its residence was set at three to five years, and began adversely affecting the block almost immediately, frustrating and angering residents who often complained about the advent of human feces, drug paraphernalia, weapons, and overall blockage of visibility. “It created a divide on this block … and was depressing … a grey box with shitty tags on it,” Neville quips. In a matter of months, however, that would change.

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Centre-fuge Cycle 3, May 2012

“Before we started putting any of the artwork on it, [the DOT contractors] got complaints from neighbors and businesses daily,” Russell chimes in. “Since the artwork started, they’ve gotten zero complaints, and now it serves a primary purpose to the neighborhood. Everyone will eventually benefit from the Houston restoration, but this is more immediate.” In a sense, the Centre-fuge trailer is a conversation piece that promotes community and social ties with other residents on the street. Something that, we are told, has reinvigorated the block.

The catalyst to effect their artistic vision came while Russell worked with the locally-controversial BMW Guggenheim Lab later that fall. She and partner Jonathan Neville, both of whom lived on the street, learned about the new trailer, and decided it needed a paint job to quell the criticism. The twosome then drafted the proposal for Centre-fuge, which ultimately resulted in two years of revolving artwork for the community. Or, as Neville eloquently says, “a billboard that’s not selling you anything.”

As for the artwork in each cycle, there is never an agenda; it “wasn’t gonna be overly-political, overly sexual, or overly-violent,” as Russell posits. Just an equal opportunity canvas for street artists from all walks and styles, be it taggers, pasters, muralists, etc.

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Cycle 1 debuted two years ago this month, and was dedicated to the spiritual inspiration behind the project, neighbor Mike Hamm. He was the one who helped forge the “art for all” credo and was a likeminded local talent. “We were trying to get him involved in some way” but it sadly never worked out. Hamm suffered a brain aneurism from a condition called arteriovenous malformation and passed away in January 2012, shortly before the paint job would commence.  The easternmost panel is permanently decorated in his memory (i.e. his doodles); through each cycle, it remains unchanged.

What started as a year-long experiment with the option to renew is now a beloved fixture of East First Street. But there is an unfortunate byproduct. The double-edged sword of Centre-fuge, as with most street art, is that it acts as harbinger of everyone’s favorite “G word.” We are told that real estate brokers already jumped on the opportunity to sell prospective tenants on this block using the trailer. This is certainly a challenge of sorts, but the duo nevertheless stay true to their vision and street-style image.

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Centre-fuge Cycle 9, July 2013

The big step for Centre-fuge was an installment at the last Miami Art Basel, in which their overall mission statement changed from focusing on so-called “transitional spaces” (i.e. containers, trailers) to areas in need of some color. Goals for the years ahead include going into “working” neighborhoods to paint commercial gates to help spur business with extra traffic. Another goal is to raise enough money so that participating artists don’t need to pay for paint or equipment. So, there’s still plenty of room for growth.

Fitting that we end our candid talk with challenges and goals ahead…

The conversation complete, we step back into the afternoon tundra for the requisite photo op. Pebbles and Jon then bid adieu to continue the supervision of Cycle 12. We leave the scene with the one quote – “when we’re old walking through this neighborhood and possibly overhearing someone be like ‘yeah i remember this park as a kid and this trailer was constantly covered in art and taught me I could do this my whole life’ … that would be a most humbling experience.”

Here are some choice shots from the last couple years…

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