Ephraim Urevbu’s lifelong love affair with the arts began when he was a young boy. Precocious and smitten by the pencil and brush, he fondly remembers drawing and painting as early as 7 years old.

Years later, his intelligence and hard work in the classroom landed him in one of Nigeria’s most elite high schools, putting him on track to be a medical doctor, lawyer or engineer – professions considered to be most respectable in Nigeria.

According to Urevbu, in his country a man is not successful unless he chooses one of the three aforementioned careers. “Anything outside of that, you’re a failure,” he said with a laugh.

Urevbu showed potential to be “successful” in the eyes of his people, but his love for the arts would not play second fiddle to a more traditional career path. He was forced to choose.

“That was one of the reasons I left the country,” he confessed. “The pressure was too much to conform. Leaving the country gave me the freedom to pursue my passion, which was the arts.”

Urevbu said goodbye to his family and native land and embarked on a journey that would forever change his life. He found himself in the Volunteer State, in the late ‘80s at Memphis College of the Arts, where he completed two years of coursework before transferring to the University of Memphis. He earned a bachelor’s of arts and a master’s of business administration while there.

After college, Urevbu realized there weren’t many opportunities for black artists in Memphis, a city he described as “beautiful with great potential.” At the time, he was creating work heavily influenced by the blues, which Memphis is famous for.

A local gallery showed interest in his work and extended an offer for him to do a showing. Part of the deal was that he’d be responsible for inviting people. According to Urevbu, he understood this was code for inviting black people.

Urevbu was not a business-minded person and had no interest in entrepreneurship. Little did he know at the time, however, this endeavor would serve as a catalyst for owning and operating his own gallery.

It was his art showing, along with his creativity and the discipline instilled in him in Nigeria, which would help him start Art Village Gallery, an artistic institution he envisioned as a center for cultural diversity.

Though he didn’t have the capital to buy the building he wanted in downtown Memphis, he used a creative and business-savvy approach to convince the property owner to enter into a lease-to-own agreement. The terms of the deal were that if Urevbu didn’t pay off the building in three years, the owner was free to sell it to another buyer. Urevbu paid for it in only two years.

He didn’t know anything about running a gallery but was so intent on proving it could be done, he put all of his energy and creativity into it. He accomplished the feat with very little resources.

“When I focus on an issue, I focus,” he said of his determination to succeed. “I get it done, especially when people tell me ‘you can’t do it.’”
The gallery didn’t just exist, but it grew to become what he calls, “one of the epicenters of Memphis.”

In addition to the gallery, Urevbu helped the City of Memphis create the South Main Arts District. Over the course of four years, he wrote the proposal, encouraged artists and arts-related business owners to move in and convinced the City to offer tax incentives to those who made the district their home.

He also put together the Arts Trolley Walk, a popular event on the last Friday of each month. Along with the general public, the walk also provides Urevbu with the opportunity to engage his corporate partners, their employers and families. Everyone gets together to explore the arts over cheese and wine.

But, he didn’t stop there.

With only a $9,000 budget, Urevbu organized the first South Main Arts Festival, another successful endeavor that would later become the River Arts Festival.

Though he’s had success in business, Urevbu doesn’t let entrepreneurship overshadow the passion and purpose behind his efforts, which is to uplift his community and “bring passion into people’s lives” through the arts.

One of the many ways he pours into his community is through service (sitting on the board of the local Boys & Girls Club, and participation in other organizations) and mentoring young artists.

“I do a lot of mentoring because I feel I’ve been blessed tremendously with wisdom and common sense,” he said.

He also mentors veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who come to his studio to paint and talk. In addition, he’s currently raising money to build the West Tennessee Veterans Home.

Urevbu said he wanted to use the district as a way of bringing people together and to focus on using creativity as a means of resolving troubling issues.

Today, the work he does is more social commentary. He uses his art to address issues such as diversity, homelessness and mass incarceration.

“As an artist, I’ve been given a beautiful gift to be able to tap into the consciousness of humanity,” he said.

In addition to his own work, he works with the Diversity Through Art program, which incorporates culinary arts, music, theater, dance, fashion and poetry.

Urevbu admitted it can be difficult balancing his business and creative sides.

“It’s the most frustrating combination of things you could ever think about because the artist in me is beckoning to the studio. The business person in me is saying ‘you got this deal you’ve got to close.’”

Still, he seems to believe the two worlds can coexist, even if managing them is challenging.

Two years ago, Urevbu convinced his wife to leave her job as a human resource manager to work at the gallery. Having her on board full time provides more time and space for Urevbu to focus on his art. He said he’s happy when he’s in the studio. He’s dancing, drinking and painting. “That’s what I’m created for,” he said.

He also believes corporations can help make a difference. He signed a deal to lease walls in diverse neighborhoods to display art. Every three months, he refreshes the work. He also has a line of “Freedom” candles with inspirational messages he uses in his corporate dealings.
Whether he’s wearing his business hat, his creative one or both at the same time, Urevbu wants his efforts to touch the hearts of people.
“My whole purpose is to tap into that beautiful, creative soul that exists in all of us,” he said.

He wants to empower us all to “make this world a little better than we found it.”