On Wednesday, the artist Jeks, aka Brian Lewis, stands atop a double-scissored man-lift and under an orange outdoor umbrella. He’s got an iPad in one hand, for reference, and he’s rattling a spray-can in the other.
On the west wall of the Pig Pounder building in Midtown, and after much to-do about the piece of artwork he created just over a week ago, he’s eradicated Frida Kahlo’s face from the gun-toting torso, wiped the necklace of medallions and beads from around her neck, removed the earrings that looked like tribal shields.
In their place, he’s restored the face of the original model for the photograph, as shot by photographer Robert Toren. It was Toren who put Kahlo’s face on a friend’s body to create this challenging piece of art.
But it was Jeks who put it up on the wall.
Now he’s adding a few wisps to her hair with an easy stroke of his hand, a whisper of pressure on the nozzle.
“This was my decision,” he says, “after thinking about it for a long time. Sitting back and taking everything in.
“This is the only option,” he says.
It’s been a long few days for Jeks. The mural raised an immediate opposition on social media and elsewhere. TCB editor Sayaka Matsuoka took it on in this week’s issue — she hated it.
It was, in this editor’s memory, the longest and most intense conversation about a piece of art Greensboro has had this century.
Fueled in part by Matsuoka’s articulation of her problems with the image, the ire created a vortex that drew in Jeks, Toren, developer Marty Kotis, gun-shop owner Jay Bulluck and the model for the original photograph back in 2012, Donnette Thayer.
Jeks talked to her himself.
“She was bummed out that I made the decision to change the identity,” he says. “But she was honored to be part of it too.
“I was excited about doing a piece that shows female empowerment,” he continues. “A lot of times I get asked to paint men. I was thinking it would be a positive thing. But it is what it is.”
He adds a few more wisps to her hair and deepens the shadow defining her jawline.
“Now I’m giving her her body back.”
He coats his finger with white paint and carefully approaches Thayer’s face, gingerly adds a daub to the pupil, making it gleam, making her come alive. He gives a smoky undershadow to the eye, studies it, then adds a thin layer to the lock of hair obscuring her other eye.
Jeks lights a cigarette, wipes the iPad on the front of his T-shirt and looks at the wall.
It’s almost finished.
“I don’t regret it,” he says. “I learned a lot, and that’s why I don’t regret it.”
He pulls on his smoke.
“I think I’m leaving it how I wanted to start it,” he says. “It was supposed to be about women’s empowerment.”