Surrounded by tattered cardboard stapled to the walls and piled on the floor, Erlin Geffrard uses donated and recycled goods from the Tenderloin for his art. He finds beauty and motivation where others see defeat.
“The Tenderloin is such a giving place, (there’s) so much trash it’s relatively easy getting materials. It just works out in your favor and I like using recycled materials,” Geffrard said.
He jokes with his friends who keep him company as he prepares for his exhibition, Belly of the Beast, at Gallery Heist on Saturday. This is the gallery’s first solo exhibition; however it isn’t for Geffrard. He is no stranger to art and has been drawing since he was a child.
Geffrard grew up in Riviera Beach, Fla. but moved to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco Art Institute on a scholarship. Geffrard said art has been always been part of his life.
“I’m having fun with art right now,” he said. “Being in the moment of what I’m doing is the most amazing feeling.”
He grew up going to art schools beginning with middle school and later being accepted to one of the finest art high school in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“I tried to get into the same art school,”said Geffrard’s brother, Lordins Geffrard. “I didn’t get in, but he did. I remember he won an art contest for a drawing in the first grade.”
Erlin Geffrard said he grew up as a middle child, number three in a family of six children and two cousins.
“There’s never a dull moment, always hear voices. I like my family a lot,” he said.
He said when his aunts and uncles faced economic hardships they would often drop off their children for his mother to watch.
“My mom and dad were just like we gotta get bigger pots. She’s raised kids that aren’t even her own,” Erlin Geffrard said.
His family has been very influential in his life, particularly his older brother Lordins Geffrard.
“You have no choice but to be influenced by people you’re around,” he said. “I have some mannerisms of my older brother. He’s fun, charismatic and outgoing.”
However, they weren’t always so close. In fact, Lordins Geffrard said they used to fight all the time.
“I hated his guts when I was little. I was an evil brother. I used to give him the silent treatment and he (Erlin) would say‘please talk,’” Lordins Geffrard said.
Lordins Geffrard said it all changed after they were on a fishing trip but got into a car accident along the way.
“The first thing I thought was, where is Erlin? I was giving him the silent treatment at the time. After that I realized how much I liked him and that was the last time I ever gave him the silent treatment,” he said.
His father is also a constant reminder of his background. His father immigrated to Florida from Haiti and works as a landscaper.
“He worked for rich people, got to see lavish lifestyles though an immigrant,” Erlin Geffrard said. “I grew up seeing people yell at him. I saw him walk away from jobs and it always makes me want to stand up for myself.”
Erlin Geffrard said he got his positive outlook on life through his father.
“My father said riches aren’t in cars. Real riches are in the soil and what’s around you,” he said.
He said he remembers going to work with his dad at the age of 7 and it wasn’t easy.
“I really had to work. Everyone has to carry their weight,” he said.
As a result, Erlin Geffrard said he inherited his father’s work ethic and can appreciate things more than most people.
“He doesn’t believe in a free meal,” Erlin Geffrard said about his father. “He’s obsessive about work I feel like I have that as well. Not a lot of people be into, like, working towards something that isn’t immediately gratifying, especially with art.”
Erlin Geffrard said his strong work ethic has gotten him out of bed at 6 a.m. on his days off so he can work on projects.
“I feel good about myself when I’m involved and getting something done. The ability to create, it’s like art is a gift that people don’t realize they have. It’s amazing, it’s really awesome,” Erlin Geffrard said.
His passion and excitement are evident when he begins to talk about art. He pauses from using his staple gun so he can clearly express what he thinks and how he feels. In the middle of the interview his phone rings; it’s an offer to do another gallery showing.
“I’ve been expressing everything that comes into my mind. I think it’s cool I can still speak my mind,” he said. “Less people express what they have to say and make more videos of how stupid they act.”
He said art has become an outlet since he grew up in a low-income community with lots of violence.
“Young death, gun violence, babies walking on glass and pregnant ladies fighting in a KFC parking lot. “You focus on what you want. If I focused on the fighting I’d be into fighting,” he said.
Lordins Geffrard said he remembers what it was like growing up in a community with high crime and gangs.
“My dad was a landscaper, there were countless times where they stole his equipment. All you can do is be resilient. It makes you so much tougher and appreciate things people take for granted,” Lordins Geffrard said.
Erlin Geffrard said there was a lot of negativity in his community but a lot of positivity too. In fact he started showing his work in community galleries
“All the kids in the neighborhood got together and would draw. We’d have drawing wars of who would have the best batman. We didn’t have basketball courts or anything so we just drew,” he said.
His childhood still influences him through all of the different people and diversity he experienced.
“I kind of grew up in a mixed neighborhood, multiracial community. I see it as a rainbow, maybe just a dirtier rainbow. A dirty rainbow of the underclass, it was filthy, but it was still our neighborhood,” he said.
He said he sees himself as an exception to growing up in a low-income and gang infested neighborhood.
“You’re in shit condition and you’re going to be stuck in it. If you can take that bull shit and turn it into fertilizer, and grow a garden,” Erlin Geffrard said.
Erlin Geffrard’s positive outlook never ceased, even when he heard his peers talking about vacations and luxuries he didn’t have.
“I got to be with kids from upper class. At first they told me about weekends on yachts,” he said. “My dad doesn’t have a yacht but I’m rich with patience, perseverance. I’m rich in a different way, rich with love. My parents believed in rich morals and values.”
He went to school in hand me downs that were sometimes too big for him but he didn’t mind.
“I wore baggy clothes and people thought it was cool. Sometimes kids would say random things but I never let it get to me. I would just, you know, say thank you for your opinion and walk away. I was always peaceful, never violent because it wasn’t worth it. I’d just be adding to what I see,” he said.
However, he said he isn’t an exception to his family since four of his family members have graduated college and the rest are too young. They’ve all had positive role models to rely on and motivate them.
He said he misses his family but it can be hard going back.
“I see a lot, pit bulls fighting in parking lots, people setting places on fire. I could easily go back to that,” he said.
In the meantime Erlin Geffrard is enjoying San Francisco and creating art in such a diverse city.
“It was crazy. San Francisco is a wild place. The first time I came I was a hermit, just wanted to draw, paint and I would be covered in paint. I guess one night I went out with friends and one night became a semester,” he said.
Erlin Geffrard is taking a semester off from school to focus on his artistic endeavors and discover what other opportunities lay ahead for him.
“Things are kind of good. Make art in the real art world not in a bubble,” he said. “You meet people, that’s a plus. I’ve met people that have changed my life.”
People like Triple Mike Strandjord, who has become Erlin Geffrard’s best friend and art collaborator.
“We met at my ex-girlfriend’s house. He was always there because he was dating a girl too and we’d always run into each other,”Strandjord said.
Erlin Geffrard said he was dating Lou Diamond Phillips’s niece at the time.
Strandjord said Erlin Geffrard is a great friend and enjoys working with him.
“It’s pretty awesome. He can be super light but can also go deep. He’s spiritual but not religious per se, and he’s really in tune with what’s going on around him,” Strandjord said. “He is playful (and) hardworking but can be scatter brained at times.”
Strandjord said he has worked on several projects with Erlin Geffrard including a collaborative with a couple of other friends called So Artsy Entertainment.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating but most of the time it’s pretty awesome. He has a particular vision, but I think it’s a good thing. He’s really talented and he can sing,” Strandjord said.
Strandjord and Erlin Geffrard have matching tattoos on their forearms. It’s an anchor with the number 1825, which used to be their address.
Strandjord said he is completely different from Erlin Geffrard but it helps with the creative process and keeps things fun.
“I party way harder and he gets mad at me. He’ more serious but I bring something else to the table,” Strandjord said. “He stays in a lot, meditates and wakes up early.
He said Erlin Geffrard is for the most part optimistic and a serious artist but knows how to have fun.
“He cares a lot about the community. He’s serious about what he’s doing and changing what people see. He doesn’t want to be trapped in a box and wants to be himself,” Strandjord said.
Erlin Geffrard’s friend, Mario Ayala, also agrees that he knows how to keep a balance of fun.
“It’s exciting, never a dull moment,” Ayala said. “The best way to describe him is youthful and wise, it’s what makes a grown up. He’s in a middle place which is hard, but an amazing quality for sure,” Ayala said.
Ayala said Erlin Geffrard takes his art very seriously but still youthful by finding an intellectual concept and aesthetically making it playful.
“It was 3 a.m. and I came into the studio. He was playing this sick hip hop and there was shit all over the place, paper cut outs, glitter. He was hyped, the hype that makes you hype, kind of like going to a show,” Ayala said.
Lordins Geffrard said he is proud of his brother and appreciates his creativity.
“Its unorthodox, it’s innovative, his work is nothing like I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Erlin Geffrard said his art mostly deals with immigration, indigenous and human rights, which he became aware of at a very young age.
“My dad made us watch crazy documentaries, I mean graphic. Travesties, genocides, I knew about Rwanda, the holocaust, about all the wars. Geography and history were really big,” he said. “Things tend to repeat themselves.”
His exhibit, Belly of the Beast, will showcase his views on the American education system and what he believes is the American dream.
“It’s going to be an installation with found objects of the Tenderloin. I’m going to transform the gallery into a fish. People can walk into the mouth of a fish, walk through the intestines. Like they’re being processed by the school system,” he said.
He said he disagrees with the way the school system creates people like it’s an assembly line. He hopes the show will start a dialogue of how we view our education.
“We’re born into the world, go to elementary school, high school, college, get married, have kids, then die. The American dream, what is it really? Is it my dream or someone else pushing it on me?” he said.
He said he hopes to inspire people and create something for the San Francisco community to look into.
“I feel like there is no one American dream for everyone one. It’s working with what you got,” Erlin Geffrard said.
Erlin Geffrard also goes by his artist name Kool Kid Kreyola, which he got from a community activist in Florida. He took on the name as a project but has kept it since.
“I was 18, he couldn’t’ remember my name. He would remember me as the cool creole kid,” he said.
He decided to use k’s instead of c’s because its initials were kkk like the Klu Klux Klan, but he wanted to turn something negative and make it positive.
The Belly of the Beast will open and have its reception at Gallery Heist in the Tenderloin on Saturday from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
His friends and family are all extraordinarily proud of him.
“He is so passionate about his art. We discussed what success means to us. If he accomplishes that, then I’ll be ecstatic for my brother,” Lordins Geffrard said.