Art From the Ruins

Birmingham native Rachel Higgins makes art using an eco-friendly pallette of recycled materials with the New York City skyline as a stunning backdrop.

By Jesse Chambers

Mixed-media installation, Hunter College MFA Thesis Show. Water dripped into the fountain as a simulated leak from a fake skylight. The fountain included coins and trash contributed by viewers.

The contemporary dictum of sustainability implores all of us to reduce, reuse and recycle. However, many visual artists—especially sculptors and multi-media practitioners—have done this for decades, using found materials to make works that remind us of what we squander when we throw away perfectly good stuff.

One artist who relies heavily on salvaged materials, including fabric, scrap wood and pieces of hardware, is Rachel Higgins, who grew up in Birmingham, lives now in Brooklyn, N.Y., and recently graduated from New York’s Hunter College with an MFA in Combined Media.

“I have hoarding tendencies,” Higgins says jokingly. “[It’s] complicated by the fact that it’s part of my art practice to collect materials, and it’s part of that psychology of having nostalgic or emotional attachments to objects. I feel sorry for abandoned and neglected objects, and I also have this desire to make things useful again.”

The Birmingham-Southern College graduate has shown her sculptures and installations widely, including Berlin, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. She’s used a wide variety of venues, many of them non-traditional, including schools, convents, basements and beauty salons. She enjoys creating playful spaces that stimulate social interaction. And she attempts to communicate her anxiety about the waste in American culture and the way in which we build, and then often quickly abandon, strip malls and other disposable structures. “What’s interesting to me is how easy it is for us to ignore and forget about those things,” she says.

Higgins has spent her summer exploring these ideas while making a large, site-specific installation at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, N.Y. Her piece, made with salvaged construction materials, will be included in the park’s annual Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition beginning in September.

Rachel Higgins

Socrates Park is a good fit for Higgins, given her tendencies toward reclamation. The park was an East River dump site until 1986, when artists turned it into a studio, exhibition space and neighborhood park. The park accommodates the display of large works, something not easy to come by in New York. It also allows Higgins to reach people she normally wouldn’t. “It’s a democratic opportunity to show your work outside a gallery setting and have all kinds of different audiences interact with it,” she says.

What would it look like to future generations if they excavated the ruins of our built environment with its big-box stores and other cheap structures? Higgins’s installation may provide a clue. Using contemporary construction materials such as Styrofoam, synthetic stucco and plastic siding, Higgins is creating bizarre architectural fragments that resemble the future ruins of buildings.  “My aim is not to re-create any existing space but to create a playful and imaginative in-between space, which simultaneously suggests the possible history and future of our landscape,” Higgins says. “Ideally, this will be a structure that people can physically relate to, sit on and interact with in a familiar but curious kind of way.”

Another view of Higgin’s installation Wish You Were Here: the artist likes to examine what she calls “mundane, boring and forgettable” public spaces, such as atriums, waiting rooms and food courts. She uses such salvaged materials as Plexiglas, acrylic sheeting and plastic fake-stone siding.

The installation’s setting is dramatic, according to Higgins. “It’s an incredible view of the New York skyline, and you’re in a setting with a bunch on interesting sculptures, so it’s a logical place to ponder the city and your immediate surroundings and our relationship to architecture,” she says.

Higgins appreciates the opportunity she’s been given at Socrates Park but says she usually prefers working in “non-art spaces,” even in what she calls “spaces in conflict.” One example of the latter was Birmingham’s Century Plaza shopping mall, which is now closed and was nearly vacant in 2009 when Higgins did a project there called Everything Must Go. “I am attracted to non-art spaces, because I’m motivated by the challenge they provide,” she says. “It’s easier for me to figure out how to react to existing parameters than to create in an art context which is sort of removed and sterilized from those problems that generate meaning.”

The artist has an ambivalent attitude toward some of the environments that inspire her. “I’m attracted to weird retail architecture and social spaces that I have a lot of complicated relationships to, mostly because I hate them and feel guilty about them, but I am also totally fascinated by them in both a formal and anthropological way,” Higgins says.

I ask Higgins if she thinks American culture lacks a sufficient awareness of the effects and legacy of its built environment. “Without getting totally apocalyptic about it, it’s concretely not sustainable the way that we live,” she says. “We’re definitely not going to be able to continue doing this for very much longer.”

Higgins has also been an artist in residence this summer at Build it Green, New York’s non-profit outlet for salvaged building materials, in Queens not far from Socrates Park. “I have a funny little lofted studio above the wood racks overlooking the warehouse,” she says. “I get a free pass to rummage through to scavenge materials, which is basically my dream come true.”

Higgins maintains close ties to family and friends in Birmingham and returned to the city in May to participate in a tornado-relief art auction held at the Acme Gallery. However, for now, she’ll continue to live in the world’s art capital. “I want the challenge,” she says. “It’s a city full of artists. It’s daunting and intimidating and scary, but it has immense rewards.”

Rachel Higgins’s installation will be on display at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, N.Y., as part of the EAF11: 2011 Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition, from September 10, 2011, through March 4, 2012. For more information about Socrates Park, visit To learn more about Higgins’s work, visit


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