Juneau artist captures rogues in paint

Rock Paper Scissors show gives painter incentive to complete 'Rogues Gallery'

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004

When local musician and artist Jacob Higgins found out he had the opportunity to show some of his work at Rock Paper Scissors, he turned to six paintings that had been sitting in his closet for two years.

Loose sketches on canvas with patches of colors blocked out, the drafts were based on a series of police mugshots from "Death Scenes," a scrapbook of crime, freaks and general mayhem compiled by Los Angeles homicide detective Jack Huddleston.

"I found a few characters that I liked, that were unique from any of the other pictures," Higgins said. "They were six definite personalities. They weren't the actual concept of the paintings; they were more like the inspiration."

The Rock Paper Scissors show gave him the incentive to finish the project, which he calls "Rogues Gallery." It shows through October in the shop, tucked behind Paradise Bakery at 245 Marine Way.

The "Rogues" vary from a kidnapper, a murderer, a con man, an arsonist, a mental case and a puff-faced man stricken with elephantitis. Higgins finished all six in less than a week.

"The actual time you spend painting is less important than the time you spend thinking about it," Higgins said.

"I had decided to finish them while I was on vacation," he said. "I was trapped on airplanes and in cars and had a notebook, and from memory I drew each one of the faces as I remembered them. By the time I got back home, I had a lot of notes and ideas. When I closed my eyes, I could see the colors. I wanted to make it have this effect of an apparition. I wanted it to look like a painting. By the time I finished, the actual images didn't matter anymore. It was just a starting point."

Higgins began painting when he was 15. His father is a professional artist and taught him basic oil painting. Higgins, 29 now, became serious about art once he was 20. He's taken three semesters of painting at the University of Alaska Southeast, most with former teacher George Parker. He's also begun working in silkscreen.

Higgins is also somewhat known in town for his mask-making. Lately, he's been concentrating on constructing props and sculptures for his band, the well-known black-metal collective Old Goat. The group will play its annual Halloween show on Friday, Oct. 29, at the Elks' Lodge.

"The paintings that I've been doing all last summer have been actually brighter and more abstract," Higgins said. "It was fun to go back to doing something that was very much representational and part of a series. That's why each one of these paintings has a similar rhythm to it. I took each one through the same emotions, until they all had the same balance."

"(Rogues Gallery) is similar to some stuff that I did maybe four years ago," he said. "I was trying to improve on things I've done since then. With some of the bold black outlines, I was inspired to do that by Picasso. Some of it is still life, but moving still life, and I was influenced by Francis Bacon. I also think there's a part of Edvard Munch. Something about that series of sick people that he did in the late 1800s."

Huddleston collected the images in "Death Scenes" while working for the Los Angeles police department from 1925 to 1945. The book includes mugshots, forensic photos, pictures of homicides and executions, portraits of freaks and other random oddities. It was edited by Sean Tejaratchi, former writer for the Portland Mercury and founder of the legendary Portland zine Crap Hound.

"One of the scrapbook's immediate effects is to deflate rosy nostalgia with the proof that there were no 'good old days,'" wrote Katherine Dunn in the book's introduction.

"The mugshots were just to set the tone of the kind of people he dealt with and took in," Higgins said. "But as you get deeper in it, you see these drunken parties of people that all died from carbon monoxide. He had a tasteless, politically incorrect sense of humor, so there's a whole section of people hanging by their necks and he calls it 'Throat Trouble.' If you're in that line of work, it's OK to be crass. Somebody has to do it."

Like the mugshots themselves, Higgins' paintings capture each personality "in a moment of time for something they knew they shouldn't have been doing." The kidnapper appears vulnerable. The con man looks greasy but insecure. The murderer seems to be dead himself.

Perhaps most intriguing is the unfortunate man afflicted with elephantitis. His face melts throughout the bottom half of the canvas.

"It being the late 1930s, freaks, elephant man, strong man, circus and side shows were all a big part of that era," Higgins said. "I had too many skinny faces, so I needed to go with elephantitis, because it was such a big part of (Huddleston's) life. He was working in Hollywood, and he probably wanted to use the pictures in this book to show to his friends when they were drinking. It's very exploitative, and it's sad. But at the same time, you capture something by looking in their eyes. You see past the freakiness."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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