Visual Arts

Justin Higner's Boats at the Castellani

by / Oct. 9, 2018 7am EST

Push pins, glue sticks (any color), colored glue, geographics [illegible word, possibly art], and office signs…and fun with art kit, and fun to paint kit, and fun with paper kit…

—from an early career [undated] Justin Higner wish list letter to Santa

An unusual and unusually interesting exhibit at the Castellani Art Museum comprises a few score of artist Justin Higner’s huge collection of boat models that are more than models in that they constitute a whole imaginary world of ships and shipping enterprises, with elaborate histories that reflect real-world ships and the corporations that own and operate them, as well as the real-world histories of the models in the their making and subsequent vicissitudes, including remaking and renaming after mishaps, or maybe just repurposing for other maritime service, much the way actual vessels are repurposed as they age and obsolesce.

Vessels of impressive proportions for models, over 12  feet in length in several cases. And no kit work here, but entirely free-hand constructions, composed of a wide variety of materials from wood to plastic to papier mâché to string to tape to Christmas tree lights. Nor any fussy over-meticulousness in the fabrication of the models, despite painstaking attention to structural details inside and out, including cut-glass chandeliers in dining rooms and ballrooms on regular route liners and cruise ships, and here and there smallish reproductions of paintings by artists the likes of Charles Burchfield, James Vullo, and Jackie Felix. And stage performance areas, and art deco décor night clubs, and exotic theme barrooms. Swimming pools, even.

The centerpiece vessel of the exhibit—one of the 12-footers—is the Leviathan. Initially a regular route passenger liner, made over into a troop transport ship for World War I and World War II service, then later into a cruise ship, and finally a hotel ship. (Fairly precisely on the model of the actual RMS Queen Mary, made over into a troop ship during both world wars, and after each military tour returned to regular route service, until finally retired from transport service altogether, and now permanently moored at Long Beach, California, near Los Angeles, where it functions as a tourist attraction restaurant and museum and hotel.) On most of the models, on the foredeck—where a ship of historic significance or one that prevailed in a sea battle might feature a commemorative plaque inset into the floor timber—there is a dedication or inscription hand-printed in magic marker. The dedication on the Leviathan is to “the real Leviathans,” the real world warships and ocean liners made over into troop ships, particularly “of World War I fame,” and the “military veterans of that time period,” going on to list some actual veterans, concluding with “Sen. John S. McCain.”

Other dedications on other vessels. On the Alexandria, a flagship of the Layland Cruise Line—said to be modeled on the real world Cunard and White Star lines—to Edward Austin Kent of Buffalo, New York, who “died 4/15/1912 on the RMS Titanic, RIP,” among other notables including Shirley Temple Black and Fred Rogers. On the Romania, also operated by the Layland company, to the victims of 9/11, and the Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Pulse Nightclub mass shootings.

And inscriptions. On the foredeck of the Diamond Isle III, a “party ship” operated by the Diamond Cruise Line, mythologist Joseph Campbell’s dictum, “Follow your bliss.” And on the Bella Contesss, operated by Grace Cruises, a slightly morose meditation from no less than Napoleon Bonaparte, “Everything on earth is soon forgotten except the memories we leave upon history…”

The only model with the name of an actual ship—and intended as a faithful representation of the actual vessel—is the Edmund Fitzgerald, ore freighter lost in a storm on Lake Superior the night of November 10, 1975, killing all 29 men aboard. It’s also the longest model on display, measuring 12 feet six inches.

While most of the boats on show look to be in excellent operating condition—some even appear to be in operation, with some darkish cottony material seeming to emanate from smokestacks—there are some wrecks as well. Reflecting real world of shipping actualities, but also real world of model-making and collecting actualities. When a model might somehow get left outdoors in the elements unprotected. Wrecks include the Aquar——-, the truncated name all that remains of the original name on the prow, part of which has been detached and removed in scrap salvage operations. And the Buckinghamshire, fictionally the shipwreck remnant of a storm at sea. In fact—the artist acknowledges—the model “was improperly stored out in the back garage and was gradually dripped upon over a number of weeks…”

The exhibit includes a dozen or so videos of old newsreels or other documentary footage on historic ships in the making and operation that the artist avers were inspirational to the model-making project.

This excellent show is called The Higner Maritime Collection: Twenty-Five Years of Ship Building by Justin Higner. (He himself isn’t much older than that. But started the project when he was ten. You get more done if you start early.) It runs until March 17, 2019.


Castellani Art Museum / Niagara University, 5795 Lewiston Road, NY 14109 / 286-8200 /

Through March 17, 2019