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Life aquatic with Justin Higner

Fantasy and model-making collide in this folk artist’s visionary creations

Each boat comes with an elaborate (and semifictitious) story.

Images courtesy of the Castellani Art Museum and the artist


The Higner Maritime Collection

Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University

Through March 17

castellaniartmuseum.org, 286-8200


Describing the work of artist Justin Higner is a little like trying to explain Pee-wee Herman to your grandmother. Childlike, yet peculiarly sophisticated. Simple on the surface, but laced with subtext. Engaging, yet hard to classify.


The Higner Maritime Collection: Twenty-Five Years of Ship Building by Justin Higner is the self-descriptive title of a nautical-themed sculpture exhibition now on view at the Castellani Art Museum. It’s presented through the folk art program, which includes artists working outside the boundaries of mainstream art—often referred to as outsider artists. For a quarter-century, Higner has been building model ships out of recycled scrap materials: anything he can tape or glue together.


A passion is launched

Higner began extensively researching maritime culture after seeing a TV documentary on the Titanic as a young boy. For this exhibition, he rebuilt his first model ship, the Claremont, created in 1994 at age ten. Comprising a toddler’s push bike, doll cradle, and paper-towel tube, it’s described as a “transport carrier, or ferry, to carry Barbies, action figures, stuffed animals, and other characters.” Elsewhere, a child’s letter to Santa requests the following: “Push pins, tape, glue sticks, colored glue, geographics [sic], and office signs, fun with art kit, and fun with paper kits.” Little Justin had discovered his lifelong passion.


The models on display range from fourteen inches to a twelve-foot behemoth. These are not precision scale replicas of the kind made by conventional model builders, and most aren’t fashioned after existing ships. Higner’s work is more like free jazz improvisations on a nautical theme, where drinking straws serve as struts, cereal bowls are lifeboats, and technique comes in a distant second to imagination.


If Higner’s relaxed approach feels impulsive (maybe even compulsive), he doesn’t appear concerned; his expressionistic technique makes no attempt to conceal method or materials. Ships are detailed with sketchily applied paint, marker, and crayon. Linear elements are more spirited than straight; scissor punctures serve as portholes. Ship names and other text are printed in a childlike scrawl.


It’s all in the details

Higner lavishes care of a different sort on his ships, with imaginative background stories for each cruiser, tanker, and tugboat. These intricate histories, including each vessel’s fictional ship-building company, can run a page long, sometimes vacillating between fiction and reality. One example: “While the mighty ‘Jup 2’ went off to be converted into an aircraft carrier, the ‘Freedom’ (now stripped but the hull is still extant/laid up), the ‘Saturn I’ went on to become a hospital ship for the Chio Imperial navy as ‘Violet Jessop’—named for a survivor of both the real ‘Titanic’ and her sister ship, the ‘Britannic’ as stewardess and a nurse, in 1912 and 1916, respectively. Part of her refit, which was not much, included a helipad just off her bridge, yet the tissue boxes (if you have to sneeze–go outside) comprising her superstructure and other touches remind me of her former role.”


The fictitious shipping companies have their own histories, logos, and business plans. A typical opening passage for one company description: “Ward Line–Built as an immigrant carrier in 1930, this line grew rapidly to include several medium passenger ships of classic lines and proportions, with two of them, ‘Batavian’ and ‘Bostonian’ acting as museum ships, and in their heyday became famous for their inter-island and liner cruises.”



The line between fan and fanatic

All of this is outlined in the Higner Maritime Manifest: 25th Anniversary Edition, a painstakingly complete record of all ships in the artist’s fleet, numbering well over 200, with dozens more “lost” through deterioration, damage, or theft. It’s customary for artists to catalog their work, but Higner goes well beyond mere record-keeping with his imagined narratives. The manifest is not on view, but excerpts from the inch-thick document are included on wall text in the exhibition.


Though crudely built, the ships are outfitted with innumerable makeshift details. Cabin cruisers are furnished with “crystal” candy bowl chandeliers, rippled blue plexiglass swimming pools, dance floors, bars, tables, and assorted greenery. Many include miniature “artworks” by local and national artists Higner admires, including Charles Burchfield, Thomas Kegler, Katie Chesna, Paddy Fordham, and Berthe Morisot.


Higner is a volunteer for numerous charitable, social, community, and educational organizations. Some ships include dedications reflecting his many diverse interests. One thanks patrons and supporters, then namedrops: John Glenn, Mohammed Ali, Gene Wilder, Barbara Hale, Mary Tyler Moore, Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel, John Hurt, and Barbara Hale, among others. Elsewhere, he quotes science fiction writer Frank Herbert and acknowledges fifteenth century Chinese explorer Zheng He, jazz drummer Arthur Taylor, Romani songwriter and humanitarian Esma Redzepova, and WWI military veteran Frank Buckles.


Psyche over form

For Higner, ideas outweigh execution, and, in this sense, he aligns with contemporary artists who often prioritize content over craftsmanship. The artist sees ships as microcosms of “nations or empires,” almost like living organisms that exist for a time, then perish. His vessels are devoid of people, lending them a ghost ship vibe. As viewers peer into the quarters, they become imaginary passengers within the artist’s psyche. Higner states, “Each of these ships are a reflection of me and what I want to convey to the world. When you look inside one of these pieces, you’re seeing me. Things are never quite orderly…it is more like ordered chaos.”


I couldn’t sum it up better.


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