Sometime in 2009 I saw a documentary about the painter Alice Neel who didn’t become famous until very late in her life. The documentary recounts how she and her sons grew up in poverty while she struggled to paint and make a living. One of the questions that one of her sons asks is if she never became famous would anybody care about her or her art. This got me thinking about my grandfather who I knew as a painter my whole life and was in no way famous or successful in gaining notoriety. It made me think about how he had the same drive as she did to create art and did so for almost 40 years while barely selling a thing. His paintings, which numbered probably around 800 in the end, were mostly unsold and sat stacked around his small house in Roselle Park, New Jersey. I decided to make a documentary about him so I could ask him questions and to try and figure out why he painted. As an artist myself, I already knew the answers but I wanted to hear it from him. In some ways his lack of “success” echoed my own fears about my failing career as an artist.
So I asked my friend Mark Parsia if he would shoot the documentary and he agreed. We showed up at my grandfathers house with my father, lights, microphones and a camera and I proceeded to interview him while he sat on his couch and chain smoked cigarettes. At some point we got up to look at paintings in one of the small bedrooms upstairs and again in the sunroom; he had stacks and stacks of paintings stored around different parts of the house. He pulled them out, unsticking them as he went, and the sound they made reminded me of the many family visits growing up in which he would unstick his paintings and pull them out for us to see. I not only asked him painting questions but also questions about his military service during WW II, his experiences on the Manhattan Project and his many years as a chemist. I didn’t use any of the interviews that didn’t deal directly with painting but he told some good stories that I hesitated to leave out. Part of the urgency of making this documentary was that my grandfather had developed dementia so I was worried about his memory and his ability to recall his past. This proved to be interesting since he would often tell the same story many times with new details, not remembering that he had already told me the story. About a year later, before I finished the documentary, he was found wandering the streets where he lived, not knowing where he was. About 2 weeks later he died of complications from pneumonia after being in and out of the hospital several times.
After he died I took it upon myself to catalogue the artwork that was left behind in his house. This included around 600 paintings and about 30 small wooden sculptures. It took about a year to shoot all of the work (many had to be cleaned of nicotine), edit them, format the book and have it printed. Here is a link to the book and the documentary (which I finally finished) and below is the bio that I wrote for the book. Below that are some of my favorite paintings of his.
Allen F. Higbee was born on August 7th, 1920 in Millville, New Jersey. He studied chemical engineering at Cooper Union in New York City from 1938 to 1942 and while in school worked as a chemical operator for Schering Corporation in Union, New Jersey. In 1941, he was hired for a top-secret government job at Columbia University working on what would eventually be known as the Manhattan Project, a project to build the world’s first atomic bomb. He was married in 1942, and less than a year later was drafted into the Army. Assigned to the 489th Bomb Group of the 8th Army Air Force, he found himself outside of London calibrating bombsites for B-24’s and other large Air Force bombers. The 8th Army Air Force became famous as the division that lead the air campaign over Nazi occupied Europe and Germany, suffering half of the US Army Air Forces casualties in World War II.
He returned to civilian life in 1946, attended Rutgers University and had the first of his three children. He graduated college with a degree in chemistry in 1948 and was immediately employed as a chemical engineer for Allied Signal Company (Allied Chemical) during which time he received a patent for his work with block and graft polymers of nylon.
In the early ’70s, by then separated from his wife and retired from Allied Chemical, he spent some time living in Hawaii as a (self-described) ‘beach bum’. Inspired by the Gods and idols of traditional Hawaiian culture he created his first piece of art; a large sculpture carved from a large wooden bread tray into a mask and two spears and later he came to make his own sculpted Gods and idols. He eventually moved on to other styles and subjects including several sculptures of soldiers and a drunk fisherman. His art often turned whimsical, like the humorous sculpture Executive Ladder which shows a group of circus like figures clamoring to ascend the corporate ranks, the top most sitting contently as the chairman of the board and the bottom most struggling as the guy just getting out of middle management.
It wasn’t long before he turned completely to painting, opting to use acrylic paints due to its quick drying time and brilliant colors. In painting, he specialized in landscapes, seascapes and ships, inspired by photographs he found in magazines or had been given to him by family members. He would develop several different styles over the years, sometimes painting with detailed precision and other times opting to paint with bold broad strokes of pink and white. Retirement allowed him the freedom to paint as much as he wanted and in 40 years he completed over 700 paintings, some as small as 8 inches and others as large as 4 feet.