Meet the Players

ArtCenter/South Florida

By Binsen JG

You have probably passed it many times as you walked down Lincoln Road, perhaps while thinking about grabbing a latte or a bite from a nearby eatery. You look up and see the neon blue letters floating, “ArtCenter/South Florida,” you read.

ArtCenter/South Florida (ACSF) is a living breathing art space and one that’s like none other. The Center promotes and evokes creativity, admiration and intrigue, while attracting art lovers from around the world. With more than 40 artists who are as diverse as Miami itself, ACSF is a landmark for South Florida’s evolving art scene.

The birth of ACSF actually occurred in Coconut Grove, when the area’s prime real estate was still accessible to artists. The gifted bohemian talents wanted to create a community that eventually came together to share concepts and techniques. This organic beginning made it possible for different generations to communicate hopes, dreams, and social proclamations throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s.

Rising real estate prices pushed ArtCenter out of Coconut Grove and ACSF took roots in 1988 with the purchase of the low-priced Lincoln Road buildings. In its 20 years of existence, the artistic refuge has given residencies to a multitude of talents, many of whom are notable in today’s art world. The high level of visibility and location makes it a focal point for tourists who wander in and realize that the artists not only exhibit their work but create it in the same space. Visitors have the opportunity to seek meaningful and rich conversations about culture, the arts, and, of course, Miami.

ACSF’s heart and integrity is based on the involvement of the community, of people coming and going with their thoughts, dislikes, and inspirations.

“This is what I set out to do, walk the colorful mosaics covering The Center’s floor. Listen to the tales of the encrusted staircase, and meet the artists who are the life and heart of the center,” says Jeremy Chestler, Executive Director of Art Center/South Florida.

And so did I in my journey to learn more about ArtCenter/South Florida and the artists who work there. The first talent I met was David Leroi. I had seen Leroi’s work before and thought he was Asian, but no. Leroi is a French artist, uniquely unorthodox from his avant-garde arts education from the South of France. Claiming first to be a conceptual artist, he changed his outlook, summing it up as cold, dry and just not him.

“It’s hard to make a move, maybe it’s too pathological,” says Leroi. “You end up with nothing but concepts. I don’t want to be a writer or a philosopher, I am an artist! I am always trying to get to the core of what is… maybe I can find something that is simpler than that.”

His work is layered with influences from pop culture, movies, mangas, and Asian urban. Pop culture phenomena “Beavis and Butt Head” is an example of subject matter that Leroi uses to reveal insightful perceptions into the subcultures of Americana.

The ArtCenter/South Florida is not only an art house but also a think tank with social commentators who use multiple mediums to create dialogues that cross borders. For instance, Leroi’s interest in North American urban is a bridge builder between his culture and ours.

With thoughts of the secret life of the American middle man, I walked into Nina Surel’s studio. The smell of shellac filled the room, dozens of high fashion and couture magazine-cutouts were pasted on the wall, and glass containers with beads, shells, porcelain bunnies, and pearls glistened with the soft light from the windows.

Wearing a rose-colored sweater, she sat with me in a corner nook of the studio next to an antique baby carriage filled with chiffon strips. Surel’s commentary on society is clearly about gender-based roles and taboos. The meaning of her pastel blocks change with little cars or doll houses, depending on her main character (male or female). They seem like Victorian relics with purity and innocence.

“One woman wanted a piece for her little girl’s bedroom, she did not realize the girl in the picture had a dress made of band aids, not the most child-friendly symbolism,” Surel says with a smile. Her work is feminine, ornate, yet not as genteel as one may assume.

“Women: we are mothers, wives, professionals, sisters, daughters, enemies, lovers… and our society tells us how and when, but this is not our nature. We have our own clocks.”

Diversity is one of ACSF’s most prominent strong points. No two artists are alike yet the common thread is their insight about different pockets of society.

Working with thick sheets of metal, carving stories in the shape of finger prints and infusing rich colors to transform the industrial materials into beautifully translucent mirror-like surfaces – this is Karim Ghidinelli’s work. Robust and strong as he himself is.

“People don’t expect a body builder to have a creative and gentle side, but that’s their problem,” says Ghidinelli. Born in Italy, raised all over the world by free spirited parents, named with an Arabic name, and displaying unique insight into the human condition – all of these characteristics are portrayed through his pieces. No translation necessary!

Being that ASCF is a Miami landmark, it is fitting to have an artist who captures moments from Miami’s magical 1930s. “I love to dive into my paintings,” says Kristen Thiele as we look at one of her recent pieces. “It makes me feel as if I am inside, with them, listening to the music, the glamour, the magic.”

Thiele’s work looks like glass orbs that store classic scenes and social events from days gone by, where posture and elegance on the dance floor with Sinatra crooning were the images of an era.

Miami is the home and a source of inspiration for Adriana Carvalho’s metal bustiers and dresses, and when this inspiration is accompanied by Brazilian rhythms, spirit and movement are the results.

Carvalho is petite, yet carries and welds metals, barbwire, and chicken wire to look like delicate pieces for the most fragile femme. Carvalho’s Brazilian culture sways in her ACSF studio with sounds of Bossa Nova, and her accent and youthful spirit vibrate throughout the room when she speaks. It’s as if her metal pieces come alive with her laughter – expressing the happy strength that resides inside her and her art.

David Zalben’s consciousness of life within the ArtCenter parallels the life of his wire sculptures and their universal meanings. Love, sensuality, grief, happiness, and joy are wired to all of his pieces.

“All my art work is a story,” Zalben says while tapping two of his sculptures, giving an X-rated motion to them. His humor and childlike mischief intrigues tourists and locals alike.

Neysa Jin Felker’s artistic journey and work dwells in the search of ‘who we are’ and ‘where we come from.’

“Everything is about layers, about beauty and identity,” she says with a timid smile. Her interest in identity is evident. Her white cast bodies are idle and pensive with hollow frames. Jin Felker’s art is continuously evolving while her casts appear to be pondering the question that brought them into creation…why are we here?

My journey with ArtCenter ended with Natasha Duwin. Her inner calm and graceful manner are represented in the tidy art forms she makes of metals and organic matter that subtly tap into the human subconscious.

“Initially to me these represented the female sense, the way we feel – with a harsh exterior and a fragile inside. But then, men started coming up to me, telling me this was the same way they felt.”

The learning and growth I experienced at the ArtCenter was what Jin Felker refers to as a ‘surface layer.’ There is so much more to experience, so much fulfilling work being presented to the public everyday by gifted artists.

The ArtCenter/South Florida did for Lincoln Road what art does to space. “Art can change and transform a place, into a place of business and movement and life.” - Leroi

The ACSF has one of the most rigorous non-profit exhibition schedules in South Florida. A monthly exhibition schedule allows for comprehensive programming and assures that the ACSF can react to current trends.