Why would a talented young artist leave San Francisco to move to Grand Rapids? The short answer: ArtPrize. The long answer? Well, we’ll get to that.
Jeffrey Augustine Songco was born and raised in New Jersey by his Filipino immigrant parents. Despite his devout Catholic upbringing, he is best known in the West Michigan art scene for his personal and sometimes controversial pieces that, as he puts it, “tells the narrative of an anxious American guy celebrating this contemporary world of race, gender, faith, and sexuality.”
Jeffrey has exhibited his artwork throughout the country, including the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts here in Grand Rapids. Most recently, his multimedia piece “The Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room” won the $12,500 ArtPrize 2017 installation category Juried Award.
Beyond his work as an artist, Jeffrey also works for local digital design and development agency, Mighty in the Midwest. He has spoken at the Grand Rapids Chamber’s OutPro events, where LGBT professionals are welcome to gather, connect, and share their success stories and struggles.
The Chamber sat down with Jeffrey to ask him about his multiple ArtPrize entries, life as an artist and professional, and why, of all places, he decided to make the move from San Francisco to Grand Rapids.
INTERVIEW WITH JEFFREY SONGCO
How did it feel to win the ArtPrize Juried Award for the installation category, both as an artist and as an LGBT person of color?
As an artist, it felt great. It’s my fifth year doing ArtPrize, and it just felt really good to get that recognition. I know I want to continue making art and this is a great way to get more exposure for it. As a person of color and a gay person, it’s really validating to know my artwork has an impact and that my challenging subject matter can be appreciated.
What was it like when you first visited Grand Rapids? Did you fall in love with the city right away?
In 2011, I applied to Art Prize and got accepted by the Westminster Presbyterian Church. My piece (GayGayGay Robe) got great feedback and was controversial enough that Reverend Anne Weirich flew me in for a panel discussion – so I got to experience the city during ArtPrize. It was really exciting, especially because ArtPrize was still new at the time. Then I was invited by the curator of Kendall College to exhibit my work again in 2012. Because of that work, I spoke at an LGBT conference in Michigan State University in 2013. Then I did ArtPrize in 2015 and 2016. Finally, I was like, “I love it here! I’m gonna move here.”
Would you say that you actually like it more in Grand Rapids over a city like San Francisco?
I love it here! Number one, the opportunities are wonderful. I have a great job, and there are more exhibition opportunities for me. Number two is the seasons. In San Francisco, it’s always springtime. It was too consistent for me. Three, it could be very expensive to live in San Francisco and I started to feel the life cycle of startups there. Lastly, I had already created a network of friends in Grand Rapids through ArtPrize and UICA, where I showed in 2015, so it was really easy to drop myself into this new city.
Jeffrey’s boyfriend’s name is also Jeff, and they were born two years and two days apart.
Can you discuss your ArtPrize winning entry “The Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room”?
It’s a mixed media installation made specifically for my room at the Waters Building. It’s a mashup of a sports locker room and a backstage dressing room. It’s sort of a commentary about American masculinity and the types of man you can be in America. There’s the obvious one, which is the jock. In the US, we want our boys to play sports and become athletes. The other is the performer, where I draw inspiration from RuPaul and drag queens. I understand what it feels like to come out and for someone to disrespect you for reasons you can’t control. I wanted to combine those two arenas of masculinity into one to show the brotherhood in the Society of 23. All the brothers have this mix of the different gender stereotypes. I’m basically saying that there’s not one way to be a man. It’s also my personal story. I’m in pain and suffer a lot as a person trying to navigate this world. The locker dressing room is like a safe space. I also hope that my story helps other people feel inspired as well.
You recently spoke at one of our OutPro events. What was that like and do you think you’ll participate again?
I need programs like these both as a professional and as an artist. I’m actively looking for safe spaces to connect with people who share similar stories, struggles, and successes. To hear those stories and connect with people is absolutely necessary and I’m excited that the Chamber is working on that and continues to do a good job at it.
The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce congratulates Jeffrey and wishes him continued success!