Jesse Hickman, 65, moved to Northern Michigan from Chicago, Illinois more than 25 years ago, wife and two small children in tow. The creative opportunities that Chicago offered this visual artist were weighed against the challenges of raising children in a city. Hickman moved an urban-infused creative practice to rural Northport, Michigan, and found new inspiration on the other side of the lake. This interview took place in December 2020. It was conducted by Sarah Bearup-Neal, GAAC Gallery Manager, and was edited for clarity.
Describe the medium in which you work.
Lots of different ones. Wood is central, but its not something I’m married to. I work with paper. I’ve been working more with used burlap bags for raw coffee beans that I get from Higher Grounds . I haven’t worked on any of the paper coffee bags for a while. I got overloaded working on them last year …. I did so many of them, I needed a break from them ….. I go through regularly through the burn piles at Northport Building Supply and Thomas and Milliken ….. four minute drive from here …..
Your current work is built with/composed of recycled materials.
I buy stuff when I have to. But a.) I want to say, top of the list, is that I want to use sustainable materials; but truthfully, the materials have this history to them because they’ve been used for another purpose, and there will be gouges and scratches and rips, and that I find as important. I can’t replicate what their prior use gives me. And secondly, I scrape by. I don’t have endless amounts of money to throw into materials for something I just want to try that might or might not work. It’s heartbreaking to see the stuff that gets thrown away or burned up …..
Why are the gouges and scratches attractive to you?
Perfect surfaces never really interest me ….. perfect wooden objects, I find them boring. It’s a beautiful joint [the artist] made, but …… I can’t do it. I have no interest in learning how to do it. That’s why I love Outsider artwork . It’s made by people who are untrained. It comes from their heart, their gut, their whole being ….. It’s borne out of this desire, this need to put it out there in the world, and they do it with whatever they can find …. That is very much at the core of what I make. I’m not making it for other people to give them a message — like so many Outsider artists are called from god to spread the message. Or, the ones who are trying to reach aliens … They’re into it. They believe it. I’m doing it to satisfy something inside of me: Let’s see what this is going to look like. Let’s see if these materials, working together, what they’ll do. I’m coming at it from my own curiosity, as well as having a decent knowledge of art history. I don’t go [back into art history] earlier than 1900, but from then on, I try to stay current, as best I can, living in my village of 500 people. It’s time spent on line, and getting daily art newsletters, I do my best to keep up with what’s going on.
Because of the nature of your materials, is the work you do more about the materials? Or, are the materials an avenue of expression for your ideas?
The latter. It’s rarely about the materials, although they’re integral. I’ll sort through boxes of scrap looking for the right piece of wood to be a part of whatever wild-hair-of-the-day I’m working on.
You work in multiples. One composition could be comprised of a repeated shape with a different surface treatment, or executed with multiple size variations. Talk about multiples and units, and how they figure into your thinking.
My early influences were Calder  and Giacometti . Shortly following, Henry Moore  and Lee Bontecou  …… My mother used to be willing to get on a train and go to the [Chicago] Art Institute when I was in [elementary school], somewhat regularly. Once I got into high school I just started jumping on a train because my mom and dad worked, and they didn’t know — it would have freaked them out. Every time I’d end up staring at this one Lee Bontecou, and I didn’t understand it. I just loved it.
After those early influences, I started seeing work of the first Minimalists — Eva Hesse , Donald Judd , Tony Smith  ….. Repetition is often incorporated in their work, especially with Hesse and Judd. That left an impact right away. Not that I jumped on the bandwagon in my early years. It has taken decades for me to work with that early inspiration …..
In terms of the repetition in your work, is it a matter of: If one’s good, 25 is better? Someone might ask why you couldn’t complete an idea in one piece? Tell me why, in the composition Fore, the composition required four, individual units in it?
Each one is completely different, vastly different from the next although they’re all very similar. It’s a coupling. It’s a little family. In Ghosts Of My Omissions, I never intended it to be one piece. I knew it was going to be multiple cylinders. Many of them are the size they are because of the scraps of the chicken wire I had laying around. I ultimately had to go buy another roll because I felt like I needed more. I didn’t know how many it was going to take to be done with it. So I made a couple of them and hung them up on the [studio] wall. And few more, and a few more, until it finally got to “enough” ….. Sometimes I know what size I want something. Other times I let the material dictate how big or small can I make this one …..
It’s a gut thing, an intuitive decision, knowing when you have enough units to complete an idea?
You’ve worked in a variety of media.
I started by making sculpture when I was a little kid, with chicken wire and plaster. I made these Giacometti-like forms first ….. With scrap wire and metal, I was making these little Calders I was 11. When I was in high school, I heard about lost wax casting, so I got the Yellow Pages out and found come jewelry supply places in the Loop  in Chicago. My mom had to come with; I was that young. And I bought some wax for lost wax casting, and I bought a book that I still have. I was making little sculptures, again Henry Moore like
As you got older, you worked in photography.
That was in high school, when I was junior. I hated school. I never applied myself in any way, but I had this dream that I was going to be an architect, so I took a lot of math classes, which I barely got through, and drafting and drawing classes — but I never took a single art class in high school [Glenbard East]. I was a junior, and I had to have another English requirement. There was a journalism class, and we had to do this final project ……. [The teacher] said something about doing a photo spread in the high school newspaper. My dad had a Canon camera …… I wanted to photograph architecture a few suburbs away from where I was living [in Lombard, Illinois]. There were a number of interesting, new contemporary office buildings. I went a did a bunch of photos and had them printed, and that was my final project for this class. [The teacher] really loved them, and asked if he could put them in the [school] newspaper, and I said, “Sure. That would be great.” He asked me if I wanted to be on the newspaper as photographer ….. It was an a national, award-winning high school newspaper ….. I bought a $1, $2 Kodak book about how to develop film and print black and white photographs. I went to one of the photo places in the Loop with my dad, and bought trays and chemicals and built a tiny darkroom in the basement of my parents house. I learned how to develop film and print photos. Once I did go to photo school [Institute of Design in Chicago 11] I had to unlearn everything I’d taught myself because it was pretty much all wrong.
What draws you now to the medium in which you currently work?
I don’t know. It just felt right. I had these bags. The burlap thing really started with Ghosts Of My Omissions. I was getting tired of cutting wood.It’s really nice, middle of summer — I had to sew the burlap around the chicken wire — so I just sat on the deck soon-to-be studio, would just sit there for half the day and just sew burlap …… I had this thing in my head for a decade: Just try stuff, just try stuff. That’s been my internal drive: OK, let’s see what I can do with this material, or this bit of scrap …… I’m pretty selective. There were times when I’d bring home way too much crap, and then I had to figure out how to get rid of it. Now I go to burn pile specifically looking for certain boards and come home with that.
Did you attend art school or receive any formal training in visual art?
I studied photo at Institute of Design in Chicago [1975 – 1978]. I virtually only studied photo after the first year of required classes. My advisor told me if you don’t want to teach just take the classes you want to and get out of here and go work, which is what I did. Big mistake. I should have taught so I could get a Social Security check ……
Besides photography classes, I took art history every year with an incredible art history teacher [Dennis Adrian 12] who ended up being a good friend and strong champion of my work. He knew everybody in the art world in Chicago, and people either loved him or despised him greatly. He was a big champion of the Chicago Imagists  ..…
You’re an autodidact. I would image you’ve learned a lot just doing your work.
Oh, sure. Making lots of mistakes, that’s how I learned.
How has your formal training prepared you to go out and make your art work?
I was encouraged to try new stuff in school, especially by one of my last teachers there, Arthur Siegel , who was head of the photo department. He was an early color photographer. He’s in the annals of photo history, not up at the top but still well recognized. He, too, must have seen something in me because he pushed me to go further. At that time I was using my toy [Diana] camera  exclusively. I think that was one of the things he liked about me. All these kids in photo school with bags crammed with cameras and lenses and all this bull[expletive], making bull[expletive] photographs. That’s one of the reasons I got rid of my real camera and started using a toy Diana camera. A little plastic camera that cast about $2.70.
Describe your studio/work space. How does it facilitate your work?
I think it’s 9 ft x 11 ft. That’s where I’ve been working for nearly 10 years now; it’s like a second bedroom [in his Northport house]. But I saw in the basement, or I saw in the garage, which you couldn’t walk in until I started renovating it into a studio ….. So, [the garage studio] is 20 ft x 24 ft, one big space with no windows where I can hang things on three walls and really get back 15, 20 feet and really look at what I’m working on …… Right now, I do so much carrying-stuff-up-and-down the stairs, outside, back inside, back outside, back inside. I’ll probably get lazy once I have the [new] studio.
What themes/ideas make up the focus of your current work?
I’m trying to strip things down more and more. Things I’ve been making in the last year have gotten a little too busy for me …..
Are your themes and ideas more about experimenting with the materials to see what results?
That’s part of it. But it’s also: How few marks can I make, or shapes can I make, to have this be something interesting? It’s post-Minimalist. I’ve always been drawn to abstraction …..
What prompts the beginning of a project or composition?
It just jumps into my head and out of my pencil onto my notebook. I don’t know.
What about when you’re standing in front of the burn pile, or handling a new coffee bag?
They’re materials for the most part ..… I might be looking for a certain piece of wood ….. [He’s taken wood] that I had no clue what I was going to use it for; but I thought I might be able to use it for something. [Some wood has] sat around, I kept moving them for months, before, “Let’s try this.” All of a sudden there was an idea ….. I really wish I could just stick with one thing for a while, but I just can’t do it. I haven’t found a way to do it yet.
How much pre-planning do you do in advance of beginning a new project or composition?
More than you’d think I would. I do some drawings; sometimes they’re tiny little drawings that go on a scrap. But I always make the whole thing in my head before I make it. I go through the whole process as I feel it’s going to be. Sure, there’s some changes. I might have to change my plan of attack mid-stream, but I’m pretty open about doing that. I’m not that rigid that I’ll stick with my original thought about how I’m going to go about making something. The materials, my own visual senses, they’ll change it along the way sometimes, and I run with it.
Why do you work on more than one project at a time?
Because I don’t sit still well, and often there’s drying times, and I have to wait, so I can jump to something else.
Do you work in a series?
It seems that I do.
What appeals to you about working in a series?
Because I have to do a number of pieces in a series before I decide if it’s worthwhile doing more. One piece is not going to tell me ..…
You sent me a picture of your favorite tools: a wastebasket and a notebook.
Andrea [Jesse’s partner] got me a notebook a number of years ago, and now she keeps me supplied with them. Now, I can look back at them. For years I did scraps of paper, and I’d save some, I’d throw some away — unfortunately. But I’d never find the right [scrap] that I did four months ago, so this way I have stuff together ….. I number the notebook on the outside but I never put any dates in them.
Is there a particular brand of notebook you prefer?
Yes. Cheap ones. From Amazon.
Tell me about the wastepaper basket? How is that a favorite tool?
Because it’s important to be able to throw crap away. I might spend two days working on something, beating it like a dead horse at a point. Now I think: “Just get rid of it.” It’s important for me to say, “OK. Even though you put 20 hours into this, it’s just not working. Stop waiting my time, Jesse.” Just because I made it it’s not precious, and it has got to go.
In one of those rare moments a number of years ago, I bought some really nice paper, I did some horrible beginnings of painted-something on multiple sheets, and it wasn’t working. So, I saved it but ended up cutting it up into little works, which I did like. To be able to cut something up that I worked a couple of days — on the original work — a year ago, it’s not a big deal other than I’m going to be able to save it to use the other side.
Your titles are interesting. They’re not straightforward. How do you come up with a title?
Again, those are things that jump into my head while I’m working on [a piece]. Either drawing in my notebook, or they jump in my head when I’m working. Sometimes if I’m listening to music I’ll grab a few words or a sentence out of a song. I really need the title while I’m working on the piece. I don’t know why it is. It’s hard for me to work on something that doesn’t have a title. It might just be a working title,it might change in the end, but if I have some little group of words while I’m working on it. Like Ghosts Of My Omissions. That jumped into my head early on when I was making drawing of these things, and that stuck last the title, but it also brought up: OK, what are all those ghosts of omissions in my past life? It helps that that’s on my mind, part of the time, when I’m working on it. It helps drive it.
It’s more for you. It’s part of the process.
What role does the title play when the public get involved with your work?
Well, I don’t know. I’m not the public.
When did you commit to working with serious, professional intent?
I think I was in first grade, and I remember doing this drawing of the principal of the school I was going to, that I got out of a yearbook. I did this pencil drawing and took it to him, and he saw it and he called my parents in and had a meeting with my parents; I think I was there, too. He said, “I want to recommend Jesse go to the school of the School of the Art Institute [of Chicago].” I don’t know if they still have this, but they had a program for grade school and high school kids that you had to be recommended [for] by your school to be part of it. And I was like, “Yea! This yea sounds like good fun.” It was on Saturdays. My dad put his foot down. There was no way I was going to do that, and that was the fuel. From then on, I’m going to be an artist. I’ve been determined, since I was a little kid, that was what I was going to be.
In the stories you tell, your parents were supportive along the way — in helping you get downtown, to see exhibitions, to take you to buy materials.
Right. Yes. They were. To a point. As long as that wasn’t what I was going to end up being. They figured I would end up being an architect, which I still wish I was in certain way. I love building things, designing structures, and I’m glad I do it for myself now instead of having to do it for other people. I don’t know that I would have been very good at working for other people.
What role does social media play in your practice?
I’ve stopped going on Facebook. I do post things on Facebook. I post on Instagram. Instagram owns Facebook, so you can let it go directly to your Facebook page, which is how my stuff gets on Facebook now. For the most part, it has been Instagram, and that’s been a huge help. It’s how I’ve gotten connected with a small exhibition space in New York, and had a show this past January ….. I’ve connected with a ton of artists. There’s a bunch of galleries that now know my work. I’ve sold a bunch of things on Instagram … It’s not enough to live off of … but mostly, for getting my name and my work out into the world, its been integral — especially living where we choose to live. You’ve got no hope [of being] a viable artist if you don’t get yourself out in the world. I don’t like traveling. I don’t want to have to go to multiple different cities and look at galleries and talk to gallery people. It’s just not me. It was me when I was in Chicago in my 20s and 30s. I loved it then: Friday night openings — it was good fun. That was the way you got yourself around, got your work known. It’s impossible now. There’s 300 more galleries. There’s 300 times more artists.
What do you believe is the visual artist’s role in the world?
For people who like to collect art — and do it not for some monetary gain, not as an investment — it fills a void, it gives a lot of people joy, and makes people think. Especially with all the exhibitions now in not-for-profit places. That, too, is so good that there’s so many not-for-profit exhibition spaces [at which] people can see what’s going on in the art world. Art should change the way the viewer thinks, in some way or another. It should ignite some feeling or thought in a person. It’s another layer for people’s lives. Me, I do it for myself. I make work for me to grow, me to be more open in my thinking. I certainly get that seeing exhibitions — that I do miss. I miss going into Chicago once a year seeing what’s in galleries, what in the [Chicago Art Institute]. Got to make due with social media for now.
What part or parts of the world find their way into your work?
I try not to let it. That’s not the kind of artist I am. I need to clear my head. That’s one of the reason I make work, because I stop thinking about the crap that’s going on, for the most part. It’s an escape, as well as a tool to help me be a better person.
How does living in Northern Michigan inform and influence your creative practice?
I guess it gives me a sense of calm and serenity. I’d be doing the same work if I was in a grimy loft in Chicago ….. It’s important for me to work at home [but] I cannot come into the studio and work here for a straight six hours. I work seven days a week, but I also do house stuff all day long — wash dishes, cook, do laundry, it’s all mixed in together. For me, it’s integral, because otherwise I wouldn’t step aside [from his studio work]. If I can step away, I can see it in a clearer way. There are less distractions here [living and working in Northern Michigan], but less influences. For me. And getting together with other artists who are of like nature has always been important for me since I’ve been in Michigan, which is now about 25 years. I’ve had to learn to adapt to less contact with other artists.
Place has more influence on me than I really thought it did. There’s a serenity living up here. I don’t have the distractions, although I miss the distractions ….. If I was inundated by art and artists — physically interacting with other artists — on a daily basis, being in the city and having lots of shows to see in a normal day, I think my head would get too full of stuff, and have too much influence. This way I have to dig into myself. Being where I am forces me to do that. Living here in relative isolation, and physical isolation from the art world, at the moment, it plays a much bigger role than I’ve ever thought that it does.
Did you know any practicing studio artists when you were growing up?
I did. We lived, where I grew up, about a three block walk to town. When I was 12 I started washing window for a couple stores in town, six hours a week. A couple doors away from where I worked there was a commercial building, and the door that went upstairs, and it said his name, and that he was an artist. So, I was maybe 14 when I had the nerve to knock on his door …. He made artwork for MacDonald’s restaurants [dining areas]. He said that every week on some night, he had a model come in, and other artists from the area would come in, kick in $2 for the model, and have life drawing. He said I was welcome to come. So, I started going. I didn’t go for long, for a summer or something like that. But there was this naked person, and a bunch of mid- to old-age “artists” drawing ….. That was my introduction to knowing a “real” artist.
Who has had the greatest and most lasting influence on your work and practice?
Alexander Calder is like a hero. I don’t want to make mobiles; but it always gives me such joy to see his work. ….. When I lived in New York for a year, I’d walk by the old Whitney …… You’d come through the [entrance], and before you had to pay to go into the rest of the museum, they had a permanent display of Alexander Calder’s Circus  with all the little figures [and a perpetually playing short film] ….. I couldn’t not stop and go in, and look at the circus and watch that film for 100th time ….. It’s more about him as a person: How he had fun, he laughed, he joked, his art and life were all intertwined. I want to be him. I want to have that attitude.
Did you have any people who modeled how to run a studio art practice?
When I still in high school, my art history teacher hooked me up with Ed Paschke . I was doing a bunch of portraits of people in their environments — their homes and studios. I went up to Ed’s studio ….. Ed was working on some big, beautiful portraits of whacked people ….. He started his day by smoking a joint, and that’s how he go himself loosened up and painting — not that I did that. I saw a lot of bad influences about how to go about being an artist, and indulged in too many of them. There’s no one individual. Some [influences] were people who I knew and saw regularly. Some who I only read about — like Calder. [He saw in them] the passion and the drive. That’s what I learned the most. I don’t remember ever telling myself that’s what I need to have to be an artist. It’s not a verbal thing, e.g. “I’m going to make a painting today.” It’s: “I HAVE to make a painting today.” That’s what I have, and I’m grateful to the people who taught me that — without knowing that was what they were teaching me.
Where or to whom do you go when you need honest feedback about your work?
At this point, and being where I am, that’s why I post things on Instagram because I get feedback. That’s the best feedback I can get right now — from people who don’t know me for the most part, but I have enough people who look at my work regularly, and I’m always intrigued by who likes certain pieces. And I have had lengthy dialogues with some of those people, and I’ve made friends with many who I may never know face-to-face.
Let me go back. What do you mean when you say, “ …… being where I am”?
Northport is a wonderful place to live. We love our house, and we have great neighbors. I do miss the city, but I think if I convinced Andrea to sell the house and move back to the city I’d last a month and want to come back here. I don’t think I could do it again. I still think of Chicago where I spent half of my adult life: It’s not that way anymore, but I still see it that way …..
What is the role of exhibiting in your practice?
I need to more. An exhibit is a tool. It’s getting further in one’s career. Hopefully you make a little bit of income from it. The most important thing is getting your name our and known by more and more people.
People don’t just inuit that you exist, do they?
No, they don’t.
Does exhibiting your work complete the circle — from creation to being viewed by the public?
Exhibiting doesn’t legitimize it. I made it. I know it’s there. I know some of it’s good. Again, the feedback is important. It’s one thing looking at photos of somebody’s work on Instagram. It’s another thing to be face-to-face with it. You see so much more. Somebody’s not going to know my work until they truly experience it face to face.
Learn more about Jesse Hickman here.
Sarah Bearup-Neal develops and curates Glen Arbor Arts Center exhibitions. She maintains a studio practice focused on fiber and collage.