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Jesse Hickman

Al Parker - July 18th, 2011
There’s Something Fishy about Jesse Hickman
By Al Parker
Artist Jesse Hickman has created well more than 1,000 witty, whimsical
fish over the years, but like a devoted catch-and-release angler, he
hasn’t kept any for himself.
“I have to work, it’s an obsession,” says Hickman. “But once it’s done,
it’s out of my life. I don’t own a fish of my own. For me, the art is not
the finished product, it’s the process. Once it’s completely finished,
it’s okay to let it go.”
Hickman’s fish creations come in all sizes and colors. They are usually
long and thin, like pike or sturgeon. They average 3 to 4 feet in length,
but he’s made them as large as 12 to 16 feet. At one point in his career,
he made no art except the colorful fish.
“I was getting a little fish-crazy there for a while,” he says. “I did
them heavily for eight years or so.”
It wasn’t for the money, but for the fun,” a common theme in all of
Hickman’s works. “I don’t even make McDonald’s wages making the fish,
but I enjoy it.”
Rather than scour Lake Michigan beaches for weathered, worn driftwood,
Hickman uses common materials. “They’re 2x6s from Home Depot and Behr
house paint,” he says with a smile. All come with quizzical names like
“Not-So-Married Woman,” and “Churches, 1 a.m.”

HEY LEROI
Even if you don’t recognize Hickman’s name, you may have seen his works
across Northern Michigan. When Sue Ann Round, owner of the Michigan
Artists Gallery in Suttons Bay, decided years ago that she needed an
eye-grabbing attraction for the front of her business, she turned to
Hickman. He designed and built a colorful arch and fish “Leroi” - that now
lures visitors into her popular folk art gallery.
Early in July, Round hosted a reception for Hickman and Jil Johnson at her
gallery, which prominently features the works of both artists.
All around the Petoskey area you can find elaborate custom bird houses
that Hickman made and sold. He made them for Crate and Barrel for many
years. And he did the distinctive exterior artwork for Petoskey’s popular
coffee spot, The Roast and Toast.
Hickman’s latest projects are a series of three large sculptured “Saints.”
They include “Soo Saint Marie” who holds an American freighter in one hand
and a Canadian freighter in the other. “St Frank” is surrounded by
wildlife and “St. Mishimegabing” – Hickman’s fictional saint of Leelanau
County – offers a fish in outstretched arms. It’s taken him nine months,
working seven days a week, to complete the three saints.
“He’s an amazing writer and poet, too,” says Round. “For example, he wants
all his “Saints” to have a soul, so he carved out the torso and in each of
them there is a painting, recipe or journal inside. It’s an honor to have
these wonderful pieces in our gallery.”

KID STUFF
Growing up in a Chicago suburb, Hickman knew early on that art would be a
big part of his life. “Since I was a little kid, I was always making
stuff,” he recalls. “At one point, I really got into sculptures and took a
Henry Moore book out of the library for, like, 30 times. I made a lot of
things of plaster and wire.”
Over the years he made a home in New York City and Chicago and dabbled in
plenty of creative mediums – photography, minimalist painting, poetry,
creative writing and more. But also held down some physical jobs,
including working construction for a year at Bay Harbor. “I vowed I’d
never do that again,” he says with a smile.
In 35 years as an artist, Hickman’s work has been exhibited in more than
70 solo and group exhibitions at various museums and galleries including
the American Visionary Art Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The
Walker Art Center, The Smart Museum, The Laguna Gloria Art Museum, The
Hyde Park Art Center, The Bemis Foundation, The Chicago Cultural Center,
The Rose Art Museum, The Renaissance Society, and The Newport Harbor Art
Museum.
He’s been featured in the media 80-plus times including books, museum
catalogs, magazines, the Wall Street Journal and HGTV.
“I’m fortunate to have work in permanent collections of the American Folk
Art Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Smart Museum, The Rose Art
Museum, World Bank, The Discovery Channel, Champion International, Hewlett
Packard, the collections of Dennis Adrian, Hank and Gilda Bookbinder,
Jeremy Irons, Leonard Nimoy, Vicky Lawrence and many others‚ – all this
and four bucks will buy me a cup of coffee.”
Hickman says he has an unrestrained passion for what he does.
“I’m excited to get into my studio every day to basically play,” he says.
“When I’m finished with pieces, I love sending them out into the world for
you to give them their next chapters in their lives. For my work to
perhaps make you chuckle, or cause you to think, or to wonder ‘what the
hell was he thinking when he made this?’ or simply to give you a little
half-cocked smile as you pass it by. Mostly I hope that what I make
inspires you in some way. That would be the greatest gift to me.”
 
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