A master monsters

Higgins tranforms his passion for horror into art

Posted: Thursday, October 12, 2000

Flesh-eating zombies and a legion of monsters will bring Halloween to Juneau a few weeks early this year.

Jacob Higgins' fascination with horror makes him the ideal artist for a Halloween-themed exhibit opening Friday at the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council Gallery. A reception from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. will celebrate the opening of the show, titled "October Decomposure."

Higgins' oil paintings, sculptures, puppets and masks will turn the downtown art gallery into a haunted house. His multi-media work is inspired by the werewolves, vampires and grave-robbing ghouls of medieval Europe, as well as the horror icons of modern film.

"These monsters were created 500 years ago as explanations for things people couldn't understand," Higgins said. "They're still relevant today. They deal with topics that are relevant to the human condition."

The 25-year-old artist surveyed his work last week in his downtown studio apartment, sorting through dozens of oil paintings to pick 20 for the show. He pointed out the influence of Picasso and Edward Gorey, of Rembrandt in a painting of hanging meat and of Edvard Munch in a painting of gleeful zombies feasting in a graveyard.

Many of the oil paintings are rendered on cardboard - there's no stretching a $30 canvas, and it allows Higgins to paint quickly and freely. His former painting teacher, University of Alaska art instructor George Parker, said that's how Higgins works.

"He's very direct. He tries to get as much down at one time. He'd come in with an idea and just start putting it down," Parker said.

Higgins grew up in Juneau and has cultivated his childhood fascination with monsters and horror.

"He's been drawing since he could hold a pencil," said his mother, Brenda Knapp. "He's always been fascinated with creating things. He's always been interested in mythology, the metaphysical and metaphorical representations of life and death."

His father, Arthur Higgins, is a professional artist and has created scores of public art pieces around the state, including the sculpture in Chicken Yard Park in Juneau. The younger Higgins helped his father install public artwork in Petersburg and Anchorage, and Jacob said his dad taught him the basics of oil painting.

He's still got the tiny monster action figures he collected when he was 6 years old. Now they share shelf space with his own creations - puppets and sculptures in their own scaled-down puppet theater sets. He's made a leering werewolf in a Transylvanian forest and Dr. Frankenstein in his lab with Igor and the ill-fated monster.

"Frankenstein transcends fashion and trends and death," Higgins said. "He's like the Phoenix rising from the ashes."

Every chair and every inch of table space in Higgins apartment is covered with finished projects, art supplies and building materials. Books on mythology and monsters crowd the shelves. A tiny casket filled with deer bones shares the floor with power tools and boxes of comic books. Higgins' paper-mach masks hang next to monster-movie posters, and a life-sized zombie sculpture stands in the corner. Zombies are prominent in his work.

"The living dead is the ultimate paradox," he said.

Some of the horror-themed artwork reflects popular culture such as B movies and classic monster films. Other pieces go deeper.

"It's a good metaphor for anxiety and paranoia. It's kind of cathartic when you're having a bad day to sketch up some zombies," Higgins said.

He's aware that some might find his work over the top. It's a little macabre, he said. But there's an important distinction between the fantasy violence of monsters and the all-too-real violence of human beings, he said.

"This isn't Jeffrey Dahmer it's Wilbur from the grave. I would never paint Jeffrey Dahmer and glorify that," he said. "There's good horror and bad horror. I don't like slasher films they're too sexual, and people really do kill people."


Flesh of pulp: Jacob Higgins created this piece, "Peter and the Werewolf," out of paper mache.


Jeremiah Blankenship met Higgins 22 years ago as a toddler in child care at St. Ann's and the two have been friends ever since.

"Some people draw flowers and landscapes and they're really good at it," Blankenship said. "He just draws more gory stuff - and he's good at it. He's not a brooding psychotic."

Blankenship said he thinks Higgins' work is part of a grander picture.

"But I don't know what that picture is," he said.

Higgins said his dream job would be to work on the sets of horror movies, ideally with directors such as Tim Burton or George Romero.

Higgins worked for years as a baker, and currently works as a residential counselor with the Juneau Alliance for the Mentally Ill. It's much more rewarding than baking, but it's not his first love, he said, gesturing to the roomful of monsters and art supplies.

"It's how I make money," he said. "But this is my passion."

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