By Becca Tucker Reprinted from Our Town, Downtown section, March 26, 2007, p.26
Ed Higgins is an unlikely salesman. His Ludlow Street studio doesn’t have a buzzer – not broken, just never did – so I call, as instructed, when I get there. “Yup,” he says in his voice made of gravel. “Be right down.”
He chain smokes on his bed with his cowboy boots crossed and the news on, talking about his work and looking over occasionally to offer me a beer or hand me a book or suggest I get a tape recorder. (I have one, I forgot it. He says it’s probably good practice.) He is lankier than Lyle Lovett and can reach most things in his bedroom cum work studio from his bed.
Like his faded jeans with their smattering of stains, Higgins’ apartment looks like he’s lived in it forever, almost like it formed around him – and indeed, he’s been here since the 70’s and is sitting on a goldmine, paying “three-something” a month for what would be worth well over a grand a month if he moved in tomorrow.
He’s still got to be a salesman. Half his income used to come from construction work, back when he made $25 an hour supervising construction sites. Now that the field is saturated with workers willing to do that same job for $7 an hour, it’s no longer worth his time. So E. F. Higgins III makes his entire living making stamps – and selling them.
“Do you want to send that back to me when you’re done or you want to buy it for twenty bucks?” he asks as I page through a chapbook he put together in 2000. Neither had crossed my mind when he tossed it to me a few seconds earlier.
“Uh, I guess… I can just bring it back,” I answer.
I end up dropping $16 on a bundle deal that includes the pamphlet, which he inscribes like an old pro, and a colorful patch featuring one of his stamps and his signature wingnut logo (“’wingnut’ is sort of slang from the Midwest,” Higgins explains, that means “crazy, off the wall. Not dangerous, just kind of fun-goofy.”)
There’s not much money in mail art. Higgins has some subscribers who pay to receive monthly mailings, and sometimes he’ll barter, like when he gave a guy a subscription in return for an old digital camera. But stamp artists are mostly just interested in communicating with each other – which Higgins does daily, by mail. He’s got a correspondence going with hundreds of other stamp artists from around the world and about forty on a regular basis.
He’ll decorate an envelope with the stamps he’s created from full-sized paintings. (“I would hope to be thought of as a good painter as well as a good stamp artist,” he says, which is not a goal common to all mail artists. Some have political goals, others are photographers.) Inside, he encloses a communication: a sheet of stamps.
The stamps, worth nothing in the eyes of the USPS, are actually miniature copies of paintings that have been photographed, scanned, shrunken down, laid on gum paper and perforated. Higgins’ sheets each have an arcane labeling system by which he can tell the date and series number, which is important since his “company,” Doo Da Postage Works, has produced over 250 editions of stamps. The recipient can “frame ‘em, hang ‘em on the wall, tear ‘em up, use ‘em.” What’s important is inter-artist communications.
The original paintings for one of Higgins’ most recent stamp series are on display at 429 Greenwich Street in SoHo. Hanging from wires on the brick wall is an entire collection of aggressive-looking but personable fishing lures (and there were dozens more paintings that didn’t make it to the gallery) done in acrylics and watercolor washes.
Names like the Bayou Special Spoon, Boyagian Lure, Green Baguette Pencil Plug, Schoerpf Spinner, and Alger’s Tantalizer make you think Higgins’ dad must have been a fisherman or something. Nah – Higgins just likes their “cartoon-ness…their curvy shape, and how that works in conjunction with the sharp hooks.”
Five years ago, he picked up a beat-up specialty book in Michigan called “Made in Michigan Fishing Lures II.” He was drawn to the diagrams. “Some of them were real goofy-looking,” Higgins recalls. Flipping through the hundreds of Post-It-marked pages, I recognize some of the lures from having seen them in the gallery: the googly eyes, the disjointed marionette-like bodies that stoked his imagination.
But I don’t see anything in the book as ugly as Friggles, a lure-like creature on display at the gallery that looks like it was drawn by someone with cerebral palsy. It’s a joint work: the border is done by C. T. Chew, a Seattle-based mail artist, who creates the context: a middle school science competition. Friggles himself is drawn by Higgins, its various parts labeled as if it were a microscopic organism and the accompanying text written as though Higgins were a seventh grader hoping to win the challenge.
You’ve got to see it to get it, and even then, it may leave you scratching your head. But it’ll make you grin all the same, like an inside joke between old friends that you can’t help laughing at even though you’re on the outside.