The Artist’s Way: Jesse Higman

Lindsey Rae Gjording
Posted on February 06, 2014, 8:00 am
38 mins

[dropcap size=small]J[/dropcap]esse Higman is a luminary in the Seattle arts scene, known for great kindness and openness as well as unique work created by a technique that he developed known as Illuvium. Higman’s earthy, organic, intense art is the sort that one only fully experiences in person, when one can appreciate the scale, the depth of color, and the play of light and dark—shimmering paint on black masonite. They glow like oceanic phosphorescence, with patterns that remind me of abalone and nacre. Other pieces bring to mind jellyfish, alien cave paintings, microbes and, of course, the sediment patterns that inspired the name of the technique.

Interviewing Higman confirmed something that I have always thought about him: He speaks like a poet, which makes it difficult to pare what he says or restate it without losing the meaning. (Hence, much of the body of this interview is quoted directly from the artist himself.) Like his art, his manner and way of conveying thoughts is also impossible to reproduce without experiencing it in person. He is melodic, in speech as well as movement.

I always get the sense that he was born being in love—with life and everyone in it. He is incredibly easy to talk to, amicable and funny. His voice is light and playful. He has a beautiful nose, a very symmetrical and angular face, and long, dark brown hair, wavy and always worn down. He only wears black. His Capitol Hill apartment is also his studio. The walls all black, floor black and covered in paint splatter. His closet is an amusing row of black shirts and black sweaters. It feels like a warm cave.

Higman’s art has the beneficial side-effect of being a portable community builder. He enlists people of all sorts to help him pour paintings, which is a meticulous and awe-inspiring event. It is nerve-wracking, meditative, chaotic and precise, requiring weeks if not months of preparation, then ending in a matter of minutes once the pouring begins. It is a cloud of paradox and the metaphorical aspects of the process itself become numerous and deep.

More recently, his paintings have been displayed in the Smithsonian and in a magnificently curated show at Vermillion. Higman has also done many installations and group pours, bringing the community into the creative process with him.

I had the luck of being invited to pour a few paintings with him. A short video of that experience is viewable at the end of the article. Beforehand we sat down to answer a few questions.

Describing “Illuvium”

Illuvium is a beautiful sounding word and in our region of water and mountains, many people may already be familiar with the concept. That might bring a local connection, but for Higman there is something more macrocosmic yet deeply personal about the term as it applies to his technique.

Higman: Illuvium—it sums up a lot. It’s a good magical word. It’s about flood plains and the bronchial, vesicular, vascular branching where a stream hits a plain and disperses. That’s an Illuvial fan. There’s that fine sediment in rivers that settles out, and that’s what it’s really about—those little particles, those little mica flakes I use. In that, you see waves, and it’s about the wave, which is really about resonance, dualities, the push and pull. It’s the first and the most fundamental aspect of life. It all begins with the wave. You’ve got a Big Bang. Matter spread out, and then this peristaltic rhythm begins to shift things to bodies and relationships. You can see it all in the Illuvial sediments, those particles on the table. They are really the same physics that are going on, the same laws of the Universe. We are like silt. We are all little networks of individual particles in composition too. There’s a lot of human relationship in it.

Paints and pouring vessels on shelves in the artist's studio

A trove of supplies in Jesse Higman’s studio

Post-rock, moving to painting

Higman was a successful artist before he began painting in 1999. He was a rock photographer who shot live shows and did album art for a plethora of bands, including Heart, Blind Melon, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Candlebox and Mother Love Bone. His work from this period is exhibited in the permanent collections of the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Seattle’s EMP. It was a major but vital shift for him to move into creating art on his own terms.

Higman: In 1999 I got a studio and wanted to do something different. I knew that the rock-and-roll thing was over in that incarnation. Everything kind of died and everyone went underground or started drinking. I thought they were all going to re-emerge and reinvent themselves, which they kind of did, later. That was my idea of what an artist is supposed to be: When things change, everyone’s just going to get into a new band. But a few years went on. I started going to raves and hearing a different kind of music. Instead of facing the stage and listening to this narrative and poetic thing, where we were all worshiping this rock idol, people were on different drugs and in their own world unified by a DJ, like a space ship, and I was really fascinated by that whole philosophy and how different that culture was.

It taught me a lot about composition, listening to that kind of music. Songs that go on without lyrics for ten or fifteen minutes—you can really lose yourself, and then a sample comes in that you didn’t know was there. The rock thing is a good iconic, strong shape, you know, and I love that. I love a strong identity or a logo. I love logos, but I always wanted to be my own artist too. And it was so clear that everything I did was cool because it was for Alice in Chains or Pearl Jam or whomever. That name always came first, and I was really on the shoulders of giants there, and I felt like every artist needs to be able to sit naked in an empty room and pull a rabbit out of a hat. You should be able to invent something new.

I clearly wasn’t going to invent anything new in rock art. It’s hard to get better than Rick Griffin’s poster, you know—liquid letters and art nouveau and that feeling. It so suits that. I didn’t invent that, just mimicked what I felt, a style I fit into. You know girls love it. You can’t do wrong with an art nouveau lamp.

I wasn’t doing something new, so I went into the dark for a week, in my parents’ condo. I put foil over the windows. I sat naked in an empty room and I didn’t take any drugs. I took the light bulb out of the microwave so I couldn’t tell what time of day it was and tried to lose everything visual to see what would come.

I learned some really cool things, mostly about movement, and my expectations about where walls were or where a doorway was. My mom’s place was painted all white. She was all, ‘Just don’t scuff the walls with your wheelchair,’ so I taped these washcloths around the foot rests, and I called them the ‘bastard pads’ so I could move like a bastard. I found that the more freely I moved, I was like, ‘There’s a doorway there,’ because the air felt different, and I just kind of propelled myself towards it. More often than being timid, I was being right. When I succeeded it was like victory, and I’d raise my arms in the room, alone. And when I failed it was like ‘Ouch,’ but at least I wasn’t running into it before it was there, or pawing for it when it wasn’t there—which I tend to do more in life. I guess we all do; we move cautiously, and there’s that difference, and that’s still in this art: that care, control and letting go.

The origins of Illuvium

In many aspects, the paintings are much more about process, about the motions and the dance involved, since the movements are so directly related. It is hit-or-miss, and it’s just as important to be in control as it is to be comfortable letting the variables take over. In some senses, Higman’s work is performance art. He paints like a musician plays, trading sound for image, the board as his instrument. The potential for anything to come out of it is what gives his work such life, makes it seem so borne from this world, the elements, as opposed to something that was meticulously composed. Unsurprisingly, the process itself began with a spontaneous act from which Higman created a more complex and complete process.

Higman: I accidentally spilled white gesso on this blackboard when I was moving it. It sloshed on there and it was just this seminal gesture, this spurt, and I was like, ‘Oh fuck, I screwed up,’ and almost blotted it, to tip the board and pour it off. But then I saw it and it seemed like a composition. Then I thought, ‘Put a couple drops of gold on this, and balance it out over here with some weight,’ so I did. I mixed up some gold and it just kind of bled in there, and I was like, ‘Fuck. I could do this for the rest of my life.’

I started setting up bigger boards and making things flow, and realized that the pitch of one inch in elevation over four feet was just the perfect thing, it made wave patterns. If it’s any steeper then it just streaks, but there’s something that nature likes, when the table’s a little shallower, so if we pour on top we will get these sand dunes where it accumulates and breaks, accumulates and breaks, and it’s such a good resonant frequency. So, at first I was using some geometric shapes, where there’s a line in it or a circle, where I felt like it needed something real, like a basic symbol to finish it. And then I started having moments where a little thing dried and it looked like a spleen or something, and it bled into the rest, and they dried at different rates so that added character.

Pouring water onto the painted surface of masonite

Just add water: Making natural waves in the pouring process of Higman’s Illuvium technique

The Illuvium process

The natural grace and simplicity of Higman’s compositions suggest spontaneous process and belie the intense and calculated preparations that must occur in advance of the pour. Higman keeps the process more about design than quantifiable science, as the variables are too hard to track in the moment. Instead, he creates a framework in which the ordered chaos may unfold on its own terms.

Higman: It takes a lot of planning to work with free-flowing water. As soon as I think I’ve got it all figured out, I’m caught in a folly that both breaks me and makes the art. A lot of times when I am painting I am playing or following a compelling suggestion, but each of my own paintings is a long-term project built from the studio up—the system that’s going to ultimately produce the kind of energy and relationships I would like to evoke. Each starts with the lattice underneath. I call the structures ‘tables’ since they’re elevated off the ground and because I pour the paintings across the top. I paint on quarter-inch masonite, on the smooth side, and roll it black. Sometimes there is a hole, or two, drilled in the middle with 20 or 30 pounds of weight hanging off to create heavy points of gravity. They bend the particles to them, shaping the compositions.

They usually take a month to build, sometimes a year to rig if it’s a really complex one, like the wave painting, which made the paint flow downhill in a spiral. I’ve got a couple of years into the ones I am making now. They are like building roller coasters, each with their own hills and valleys depending on the constellations, areas of stability or chaos, or the flows needed to make the wave patterns I am interested in. I have been using Maya on the computer to design joints in 3D so the tables are not static but active. I can render those pieces, even play with the particle flows over those structures. I am into the way things move together.

Whenever I can, I will build a better thing. The more I put into that fundamental structure, the better things go. I can’t go wrong with that. Love in equals beauty. It’s an equation I can count on. I will build a better structure, and then I will spend time with how the water is flowing, and I will have an idea of a shape I want to do, but it’s almost better to see. Every board is different. It’s bent differently. I kind of think of it as areas that are going to possibly emerge, and then, I’ll see how things are flowing and how things might collide.

You can weight an area of the canvas either by drilling a hole and hanging something heavy, which gives the paint a place to flow, or you can glue a hook onto the bottom of the canvas and create a lake that particles float towards and—as they hit the deeper water—precipitate out of, to get the softer, hazier edge. So you can have aggressive curves of streams or lakes in there, and then figure out how to compose that way. It’s really about looking at this landscape as a horizon, and then you can see the deformities of it, the shape, and you can start to understand how things are going to flow.

It’s important to understand the scale, so closing your eyes, you must have a better understanding of the arena that we are in, as opposed to thinking that we are supposed to perform this great painting now, and we all know what this painting is supposed to look like, and I’m supposed to be a painter, with these flourishes and gestures, and I’m supposed to give it my soul and it’s going to turn out beautiful and if I don’t it’s going to be ugly. It’s not about that as much as it’s about seeing this as a landscape and a space and you’re much bigger than you’ve assumed, so people want to do these gestural things where they are really investing too much power into it. Kids have an easier time with it because they don’t know all that other stuff of how they are supposed to be. Effects help, light helps, smoke machine helps, it creates an atmosphere that’s thicker, so space shifts, and suddenly you have a shorter depth of field, and you realize, ‘That’s way over there, and I’m casting something that’s going to get here and start to curve,’ and so, let closing your eyes work to take away what it’s supposed to look like, to help get into that black fabric between us.

Even a drop of gold or red is just so powerful. You pour a field, and that is settling, and those little flakes are heavy and they are falling, quickly. It’s really only alive for thirty seconds to a minute while you can still affect. It’s still shimmering and settling for about ten or fifteen minutes, but it’s in that first nascent unknown thing where you can still do a touch of something. You do a touch of gold and it just creates this huge emanating crater that disrupts rivers and everything. That’s huge. It’s nerve wracking, because if you pour over what’s already flowing, it’ll make a crater. It just tears it up. It looks like cancer. It’s too much energy into a system, so you’ve really got to be in tune with what’s happening and make the best guess. You can’t know by the water how it’s really going to go, because the particles will collect on the heavy side of a river, in the deeper part of a lake. There are too many variables to know. That’s why people are good, too, again with the resonant thing. You’re pouring water and seeing where it’s going, and pouring more water to negotiate your territory, what you are trying to accomplish here, and I’ll come over and give you this cup, and choreograph it, and you just keep going over that again.

Life is composed of dualities. For me it’s about the dynamics of control and letting go, between the foundation of my personal underlying rigging and opening the door to life-giving chaos. In the beginning, the tables were made of scraps of what I had leftover after cutting up other paintings, but I started to see how profound design could and should be, in both intention and the assembly of pieces—the ways the backside of the canvas influences what happens on our surfaces. I followed these concepts into the subconscious, Freud and Jung and the Surrealists, into the science that illustrates what we know intuitively of molecular and atomic structures, into the great mythical relationships we live in every day between earth and sky, masculine and feminine, the Apollonian and Dionysian. It’s a relationship in the universe that produces art, the partnership in the wave, objects and forces in opposition, in tension and balance that create a vilifying friction and new life.

Higman preparing the masonite surface with a brush

Higman prepares the masonite surface with a brush

The chaos and control

Higman mentions several dualities, including Apollonian and Dionysian ideals which, though hard to pin down as philosophies, do seem to be exemplified by the balance of planning and spontaneity, design and intuition that goes into a table and a pour. More simply put, the duality is of chaos and control: Trying to guess the flow of water or the speed at which the particles will dry is chaos, so there is control in the setting and the movement. Higman has much to say about chaos and control in his work and as forces we experience in the world at large.

Higman: I thought chaos and control were metaphors at first [in the work], and now I am realizing they are literal. Even the canvas structure is this duality of a grid underneath that needs to be set up so that the water flows towards the heaviest points, and you’ve got a shape that you can kind of predict. And it’s not too close to the edges. And we’ve got the paintbrushes and everything set up around it, so there’s an arena around the middle. It always blows me away how much work that takes. I could spend all day just pouring water and figuring out what the board needs. It’s like meeting with nature, and playing jazz with nature, or making love. You’ve got to find out what the other needs and respect that, or it’s not going to go well.

All that kind of structure needs to be there, and then if that’s underneath, then on top is where chaos happens. It’s the human experience; it’s unpredictable. That’s true about space too, you know. There are infinite possibilities, and water is great for that because it’s about flow, and you’ve got to go with it at some point. You’ve got to jump in, you can’t fight it or it’s not going to go well.

I try to build this thing and then set up some point where it’s going to turn into chaos. Inviting other people in is inviting in their own ideas, and sometimes they’re powerful characters that make me uncomfortable with what’s happening. But it’s often that point where I want to control but I am really uncomfortable—even when I am doing it by myself—that shows me something new. Before I was painting with people, I’d be trying to make more of certain paintings that were [really popular]. I’d go chasing after the painting, do it three times a week…[saying] ‘I’m not going to fucking give up. I know I can do this because I can do anything.’ But then I’m just beat and I say, ‘Well, lets just pour the rest of the cups on the table and quit,’ and then it happens. It took that moment for something new to come out—and it’s such a joke, how much life is unpredictable, or can introduce something when you’re not attached to it.

I can’t think that through; there’s no way to figure that magic out. I’ve tried both sides. I’ve got to realize the way to get there is to keep putting energy into it and not beating myself up to the point where it affects my movement. The number one rule is movement, so if it affects anything, stops me from going forward, it’s not good. Any kind of over-thinking.

The author and the artist working on a bright green pour with gold elements

Higman frequently invites others to collaborate on a pour

The chaos and control of collaboration

Higman has partial paralysis, so many aspects of his life and art are assisted, which is yet another example of chaos versus control. The other participants add control, but their presence intrinsically brings another level of chaos as they are a new force in the equation. In his great empathy and compassion, Higman seems to view the chaos that others potentially bring as a chance for the greatest harmony of all.

Higman: Help is a necessity, and the bigger things are, the more I have invited people to help me do them. I found that everyone becomes unified, like a cell. There’s wordless communication. That was enough to make me think ‘Why don’t we just do this on purpose, with larger numbers of people,’ and these things became more meaningful, and then we were able to do bigger ones, where all push waves through them together, send these waves back and forth. I had some stuff in the Smithsonian a couple years ago and the curator Leanne Mella wrote this nice paragraph about relational aesthetics.

(Author’s Note: Relational aesthetics, also known as Relational Art, comes from French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud. It is the idea that the artist is a catalyst, and the artwork itself ‘creates a social environment in which people come together to participate in a shared activity.’ Relational art produces human relations, much like Higman’s art involves more than him and a canvas: It functions as an object around which people gather.)

Higman: But it’s that idea that it’s not about the work of art that is the focus; it’s the relationship between the viewers and the art. I think of it like this relationship azimuth, that triangle that you point to the horizon. With a star, you can figure out where you are or where to go. That relationship between us is that painting on a wall. It’s best when there’s love involved, when it’s a date and you’re in your fuzzy sweaters, and you’re standing next to each other and beholding some event. I like to think of it like oil on the street or in a puddle, and you look at it and go, ‘Oh look at the rainbow!’ ‘I know! I see red over here!’ ‘Oh do you?’ and you step over there and are like ‘Oh yeah, I see red from my side!’

It’s that sharing together of what we are perceiving that is so basic to what we are about as beings, and it’s basic to what the whole universe is about: relationships between objects. I see life in that, and so when you get people together, they start to identify with what they are seeing. At first I wanted to prove that life was coming out of it. Why are there birds and why are there fish? Maybe because birds and fish traveled through this medium and they are tapered by it, genetically or biologically, and so this is a similar medium. It’s particles moving through a thicker form of time that we can perceive and then it settles and dries.

It’s really in the naming together. When we do it, it doesn’t matter if we see a cloud or the surface of the moon. Because I want so badly for you to see what I see, or I want to see what you see, and then we resonate together in that sharing and sitting on the edge of the universe and watching it form together. It’s so beautiful, and it doesn’t matter what the object is that we’re perceiving; it’s just that we’re doing it. It’s real rich—and maybe that’s generative, that kind of perception. I like the old philosophy, in medieval thought, believing that reality is projected from your eyes. I could see that, because in a way it is; what we think is going on is the reality that we are really creating, whether it’s good or bad. And with this work, I see a bird or it looks like space, and all that matters is that we are having this happening together and believing that we are creating life. It seems like that is a will in the universe. That is what life is about. It’s a belief to exist and it’s a generative kind of force. I am really fascinated by that.

I’ve been thinking about resonance. It’s a folly in life that we can achieve some transcendent things, but still we are stuck in this other frustrating world of errands, and it takes both. It takes getting each of ourselves together where we can get to this point in the day, where we can play. Language seems necessary, too, because it stimulates us. It’s that resonant effort, that trying, that language stimulates.

The only thing that beats art is making love. You can have language involved and sometimes it helps, but there are just those soft moments where you have had it out, or you climaxed, or you just drift and you want to stay awake all night and you’re lying there like, I hope this never ends, and that’s wordless, but that’s also from that friction and that tension and that effort and that building and that breaking. I think a lot of this process is about building and building: building, setting up, testing, building the pieces to make the whole and the underlying structure, and then at some point, you’ve got to let go, or nothing new happens, and painting with people helps with that.

Photography and Video by Michael Barakat and Lindsey Rae Gjording.

More of Jesse Higman’s work can be viewed at his website, www.jessehigman.com

Lindsey Rae Gjording
Pessimistic about small scale issues, optimistic about large scale issues. Of the bleached hair variety. Does not tan. Does not do math well. Enjoys macroeconomics. Cuddler of puppies and kittens worldwide. Wields a Hasselblad medium format camera like it ain’t no thang. May one day finish writing a novel. Fiction over non fiction. Globe trotter of the third world. Has visited a suspicious number of communist countries. Buddhist aspirant, yoga dabbler. Long distance runner, voter of the underdog. Likes a good steak salad, is not currently in love, and would prefer medium rare on both counts.

3 Responses to: The Artist’s Way: Jesse Higman

  1. BlackRockCity

    February 6th, 2014

    What an inspiring ‘hero piece’! This is worthy of publication in any major arts and culture magazine. The Internet, as the great egalitarian leveler, delivers this piece without the bondage of those established channels. So this is commentary on the times we live in at several levels.

  2. mrspez

    March 27th, 2014

    Could not agree more with BlackRockCity. Thank you!

  3. Edwin C

    June 15th, 2015

    Mesmerizing work.