Jesse Higman's work is featured in the world's largest collection by disabled artists now on display at the Smithsonian.
Like most artists, Seattle’s Jesse Higman has negotiated the difficult demands of a career as a professional painter.
But a challenging path to success wasn’t his only obstacle: When Higman was 15, he was mostly paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident. Though he has control over his arms, wrists and hands, his fingers remain immobile. His intricate drawings and sprawling paintings were all created despite his limitations and inspired by his adaptations.
Higman’s work is being featured this summer at the Smithsonian as a part of the VSA (Very Special Arts) International Arts Festival — the world’s largest collection of works by artists with disabilities. But for Higman, his limitations aren’t what makes his art — disability is just one element of his reality.
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“I don’t spend a lot of time expressing myself about my disability,” he said. “It’s not that interesting to me. It’s just the situation I’m in.”
However, he is the first to admit that his physical limitations helped drive him to the swirling, ethereal designs he creates.
Though he began his artistic career drawing intricate images on leather jackets for Seattle-area rock bands such as Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Heart, for the past 10 years he has been using a system of weighted wine bottles, strings and an adjustable platform to guide poured paint across a canvas.
The apparatus is a work of art in itself. In fact, the precisely engineered system is on display across from his work in the S. Dillon Ripley International Gallery on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“When I got a big studio, I started to experiment with what movement was all about for me,” said Higman, 42. “I’m so disabled that maybe I have a need to feel some kind of movement. So I started to pour things and watch how they flow and dropped the pencil and brush and pen altogether. I really got a lot out of watching things happen and sort of seeing a miracle occur in front of me.”
Though he says only about one in every five paintings turn out a success, the process of interacting with the natural flow of paint and the vitality of the work makes each product worthwhile.
“It is much more alive to me,” he said. “It gave me that kind of satisfaction I was always envious of musicians for having, such a live medium. It wasn’t the strategy I was using before as a graphic artist, illustrating or painting the hell out of something to make it do what I wanted it to do. Now I got textures and things happening that I couldn’t have planned.”
Higman’s work is among many large-scale and 3-D works in this year’s VSA Festival.
“What I find particularly interesting as the director of visual arts is that there are a lot of artists with disabilities now that are going beyond the picture plane,” said Stephanie Moore, director of visual arts for VSA. “Not only are the artists breaking those traditional boundaries but we’ve put into play a lot of sensory experience. So the visitor with any type of ability could come in and have the same type of experience.”
Though Higman won’t be demonstrating how he creates paintings while his work is on display at the Smithsonian, visitors can watch a video of him working with the canvas and pouring paint. Close, intimate shots show the texture and flow of the paint as the work is created and give the viewer a chance to go inside his artistic process.
Higman, who was honored in Seattle with a 2009 Mayor’s Art Award, was elated the first time he entered the Ripley gallery and saw his work on display.
“This show is an honor, to be brought here and to have something put in front of people,” he said. “But I’m just starting to understand the words, the language of disability. I feel it’s the right place to be, but I try not to expect too much. It’s more fun that way.”