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New downtown habitat 

Blank Space Art
Lounge Grand
10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday
201 E. Central Blvd.



There's a new "art lounge" at the corner of Rosalind Avenue and Central Boulevard, on the Lake Eola side. Not only is it the newest art lounge, but it's also the only one in town. Even though there have already been a series of soft openings, including a ribbon-cutting and special events (DRIP performs there monthly) and lectures (four local graphic designers spoke Oct. 21), the doors officially open to the public this weekend during the annual Fall Fiesta at Lake Eola Park. And finally the Blank Space Art Lounge will have a chance to show its colors, which are unusual, like owner Jefrë Figueras Manuel.

Manuel, 37, of Filipino descent, is an environmental artist specializing in public art who has been running Studio Jefrë on the third floor of CityArts Factory for a year. This is where he set up his offices — ping-pong table and all — after putting in a decade of work as a landscape architect with Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Inc. The years spent working for the national urban-planning firm headquartered in Orlando were a natural fit, considering Manuel earned his undergraduate degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State University.

As artists do, however, Manuel found himself restless and in need of a challenge, so he took a sabbatical in 2005 to attend the renowned Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, where he studied "morpho-ecology," a blend of morphogenesis (the biology behind organisms developing their shape) and ecology (the interactions of organisms with their environments). His life was never the same. He decided to strike out on his own and pursue visions blending art, music, fashion and design.

"I decided to move to the ‘artist' tagline, which means I could do everything myself and fully develop my ideas and take my own risks," says Manuel, who felt as if he were carrying a stigma from being limited to landscape design.

Morpho-ecology is about creating designs that interact with people, and that sensibility drives his projects. His latest work illustrates his intentions and is his largest commission to date. In early October, the city of Kissimmee selected his $750,000 bid to build "Rain," a 30-foot-high cubiform fountain, as part of the renovation of Lakefront Park. Architectural renderings don't do justice to the multifaceted design, which will allow visitors to experience the sights and sounds of the cube-shaped fountain and wander under its reflecting pool. When looking into the pool, you'll see people walking around, seemingly under the water. It's a progressive acquisition for a city typically considered a cow town.

Manuel already has several major projects in progress around the country: an outdoor art work for the University of Oregon's Miller Theatre Complex; public art for the Farragut North metrorail station in Washington, D.C.; an "artwalk" in the Katrina-devastated St. Roch area in New Orleans; and the paving design for the Arcola City Police Station and Community Center in Miami. That's in addition to his work for the Silver Star Recreation Center and the Barnett Gymnasium.

The Kissimmee award came on the heels of his decision to re-establish his offices inside Blank Space, which serves coffee by day and beer in the evenings but is essentially his workspace. He says his focus is on contemporary art and reaching younger generations, so it's a venture beyond the traditional, and his ideas and inclusiveness are already stimulating the art scene. (Glass blower Charles Keila will be selling his holiday ornaments outside Blank Space during the opening weekend, and Consuelo Bellini will have her jewelry on offer.)

The press release states, "The new contemporary art house will feature national artists, art talks, exhibitions, art installations, digital media, aerial arts and interactive performances." On that note, Manuel has hired Lisa Cuatt, formerly of CityArts Factory, as his curator, and the first show features abstract paintings by Monte Olinger, president of the board of Downtown Arts District Inc. Manuel says other artists being pursued are Billy the Artist, Noah G Pop and Derek Gores.

Manuel exudes a quiet confidence and says he has learned to delegate responsibility rather than try to be a one-man show. He's had to due to health issues — at 35 he had triple bypass surgery. While his name and work are being recognized as he bids on public art projects around the country and hopefully the world, Manuel has decided not to move to Miami or New York, but to stay here and represent the city of Orlando.

Even before the doors to his new venture have opened to the public, Manuel has been something of a gravitational pull to like-minded artists and designers in the area, and could very well be a binding force in the downtown art scene fragmented by development and politics.

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