Simon Hickman is in the House

Simon Hickman’s massive and fantastical sculptures start as dead wood yearning to be free.

It was a pleasant spring afternoon and we sat out on Simon Hickman’s screened-in porch, or as he calls it, the “cativiary” – an aviary for cats. It was so named because Hickman had built several little platforms at various levels around the porch on which the two family cats could perch like birds of paradise should they so desire. It seemed the perfect setting to talk about Hickman’s sculptures, which, like a cativiary, not only give a wink to convention, they more often than not turn it upside down.

Hickman is one of the most original artists on Martha’s Vineyard and yet you may very well have never seen his work – with one notable exception: His The Grim Reaper won first prize for sculpture at the 2013 Agricultural Fair. Standing at fifteen feet tall, it was pretty hard to miss.

For a few years Hickman and the late artist Richard Lee shared a small gallery called Chicamoo that was tucked away on the back of Hickman’s property on Lambert’s Cove Road in West Tisbury. But he doesn’t exhibit in any of the more well-trafficked mainstream galleries, perhaps because his pieces like The Grim Reaper or Benin Box – a sacrificial virgin riding on a crocodile – don’t really mix that well with the usual Island fare of pastoral paintings and seascapes.

You can react to Hickman’s work on a number of levels. To begin with, the craftsmanship and detailing of his wood carvings are extraordinary; the finish is like polished marble. Then there’s the scale: both The Grim Reaper and Vlad the Impaler stand fifteen feet tall. And finally, there are those images: ghoulish characters that seem to have stepped out of the Star Wars bar…prehistoric looking fish…a hand reaching out from the mouth of a shark – obviously there’s more going on behind Hickman’s easy-going persona than meets the eye. 

The Grim Reaper, carved from a West Tisbury elm tree, at the Agricultural Fair in 2013.
Tom Hodgson

But when I attempted to get Hickman to open up and talk a little about his creative inspiration, it was like trying to make a five year old eat broccoli. I knew it was time to stop probing when Hickman’s wife, Marion, joined us on the porch and he only half jokingly cried out to her: “Honey, he wants to get inside my head!”

Hickman, who is sixty-two years old, was born in England and grew up on a farm in Kenya, and while he had no formal art training – Hickman modestly contends that he can barely even draw – he was exposed to a lot of folk art in his travels to Africa, Australia, Indonesia, and the Greek islands. It clearly made a lasting impression. Benin Box, for example, not only resembles a primitive sculpture, it functions as a box to hold an authentic “virgin slayer” – a sculpted piece of ivory that, according to Hickman, tribal elders used to deflower young virgins.

When you live in Africa, miles away from the nearest store, you learn to be resourceful and make the most of what you have. As a boy, Hickman found a wooden soapbox with wheels and built a racing car for himself. Today, found objects continue to play a big role in shaping his creations. As luck would have it there are plenty of objects to be found around the Hickman house. The back of his fourteen-acre property was formerly the dumping ground for the caretaker of the old Makonikey Hotel, and he is forever uncovering forks and spoons and other odds and ends that often wind up in his work.

Another treasure trove is his own home, which was once owned by a whaling captain who enjoyed bringing souvenirs back from his voyages – everything from dolls and thimbles to exotic shells. While renovating a few years back, Hickman discovered many of these items in the walls of his house where apparently rats had dragged them throughout the years to make their nests. His piece Titanic is composed almost entirely from these found objects.

He also has a penchant for collecting logs and tree trunks and stashing them away until inspiration strikes. Several years ago, while gazing down on a large maple tree trunk, he heard the news report of a great white shark trapped in an inlet near Woods Hole. It occurred to him that a shark might similarly be trapped inside of this handsome expanse of maple, so with the help of a set of chisels – some of which he had to custom-make for the job – he freed the shark inside the maple and today it proudly hangs in his pool house. Presumably, the man whose hand you can see through the gaping mouth of the shark will have to free himself.

Great White was inspired by a real shark temporarily trapped in an inlet near Woods Hole.
Shannon Rynd-Ray

Believe it or not, a man-eating shark is not the most unusual item in Hickman’s pool house. That distinction goes to the walk-in bar that was created from the trunk of the ancient linden tree that once graced Main Street in Vineyard Haven next to the Capawock Theatre.
The town offered the dying tree to anyone who would take it away and Hickman, thinking he’d found an endless supply of aged hardwood, accepted their offer. Unfortunately, the linden was rotten to the core and nearly hollow. Hickman cut an opening in the tree and lowered himself in with a chainsaw, then, while breathing through a garden hose, he cut the trunk in half and brought what he could salvage back home to be resurrected as a bar.

The Grim Reaper began its life as an elm tree on Music Street in West Tisbury. When the tree was being taken down, Hickman salvaged a large section of the trunk because he “could just feel the energy in it.” The shape of the wood suggested a figure with some sort of cloak, but other than that Hickman wasn’t sure what might emerge. Then he remembered a giant piece of rosewood he had been keeping for years. “Rosewood is so hard that you don’t have to worry about it breaking,” Hickman explained. “So I thought, this would be great to use to build arms for this creature.” Long, skeleton arms as it turned out. Like all of Hickman’s pieces, it gradually took on a life of its own as he worked on it – in this case the personification of death, complete with a copper cloak.

Vlad the Impaler was born not from a mighty oak but from a great leviathan. Hickman was able to salvage several whale vertebrae that washed up on the shore of Katama Bay and he used them as the core of Vlad, an anatomically correct, Dalí-esque behemoth that could make a Minotaur blush.

From the corner of Hickman’s studio, he pointed across the field to a large object wrapped in a tarp and supported by two-by-four-foot braces. It’s his next project, he explained: a twenty-foot elm that he discovered on the beach next to the R.M. Packer Co. in Vineyard Haven. I looked into his eyes for some clue as to what might emerge from this great block of wood. But at the moment, he had other things on his mind.

“You know, I’ve got a real Caddy Shack problem going on over there,” he said pointing to a pond he built several years ago. “Muskrats…damn muskrats…”

So we’ll just have to wait.

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