Jesse Higman, Speight Jenkins, Artist Trust, Northwest Tap Connection, and Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra receive Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards on September 4, 2009.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 8/11/2017
  • Essay 20425

On September 4, 2009, visual artist Jesse Higman; Seattle Opera director Speight Jenkins (b. 1937); Artist Trust, a nonprofit providing support to individual artists; Northwest Tap Connection, an urban dance studio in the Rainier Beach neighborhood; and Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra (SYSO) receive Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards in a ceremony held, as it is every year, at the start of Bumbershoot, Seattle's Labor Day weekend music and arts festival. Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955), who initiated the annual arts awards in 2003, had announced the 2009 recipients in June. The five winners were recommended to the mayor by the Seattle Arts Commission, which chose them from some 360 nominees submitted by members of the public.

Jesse Higman

Jesse Higman became a paraplegic, with limited use of his hands, at age 15 when he swerved his car to avoid a squirrel, crashed, and broke his neck. The tragedy did not prevent him from forging not just one, but two, careers in the arts. In the 1990s he was a rock photographer and artist closely associated with the grunge-rock movement that began in Seattle and took the world by storm. He began by painting guitars and leather jackets for musicians, photographed live shows, and became known for his work with some of the leading grunge bands, producing album art, posters, and more for such groups as Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.

But at the end of the decade, Higman embarked on a quite different artistic path:

"In 1999 I got a studio and wanted to do something different. I knew that the rock-and-roll thing was over in that incarnation. Everything kind of died and everyone went underground or started drinking. I thought they were all going to re-emerge and reinvent themselves, which they kind of did, later ...

"I clearly wasn't going to invent anything new in rock art. It's hard to get better than Rick Griffin's poster, you know -- liquid letters and art nouveau and that feeling. It so suits that ...

"I wasn't doing something new, so I went into the dark for a week, in my parents' condo. I put foil over the windows. I sat naked in an empty room and I didn't take any drugs. I took the light bulb out of the microwave so I couldn't tell what time of day it was and tried to lose everything visual to see what would come" (Gjording).

What came did so, perhaps fittingly, as the result of an accident. Higman spilled white gesso on a blackboard that he was moving. He started to clean it up, "But then I saw it and it seemed like a composition. Then I thought, 'Put a couple drops of gold on this, and balance it out over here with some weight,' so I did. I mixed up some gold and it just kind of bled in there, and I was like, '... I could do this for the rest of my life'" (Gjording). From this accidental beginning, Higman "engineered a painting system of surface construction and pouring solutions of minerals" that he called "Illuvium, for the geologic process of particles settling on flood planes" ("Award Winners/Artist Profile: ..."). (Some accounts of Higman's work spell the term as "alluvium," but the artist uses the less-common spelling beginning with "i.")

Beginning in 1999, often working with collaborators, Higman used his Illuvium process to create "mammoth, glittery, abstract paintings" by "wrangling paints, pigments and other fluids to create landscapes that only reveal their final form after every drop has evaporated" (Manitach). Accident, or at least unexpected results, continued to play a significant role in the process. In 2015, having invited a reporter to observe his team at work and participate by squeezing a few drops of red pigment from an eyedropper onto a work in progress, Higman said of the result:

"It looked different in my mind ... This fractaling is really interesting though. I'm not sure what's causing it, but now I wouldn't trade it. It's so gothic and electric" (Manitach).

Higman's Illuvium paintings have been displayed at venues ranging from Seattle's Vermillion Gallery to the Smithsonian. Some of his early work from the grunge-rock era is included in the permanent collections of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP, formerly EMP) in Seattle.

Speight Jenkins

Speight Jenkins had been general director of Seattle Opera for 25 years when he received the 2009 Mayor's Arts Award. "[O]ne of Seattle's icons, and for opera lovers around the world" (Bargreen), he would serve in the position another five years before stepping down in 2014 at age 77.

Born in Dallas, Jenkins was an opera fan from the age of 6 (his mother captivated him with stories of airborne Valkyries), but "had never before staged or presented an opera" when Seattle Opera hired him in 1983 as its second general director (Bargreen). He had earned a law degree and served in the military before becoming an influential music critic and editor, concentrating on opera. Based in New York, he wrote for the New York Post, was an editor for Opera News, and hosted the well-known Metropolitan Opera television broadcasts.

Jenkins lectured in Seattle during a Seattle Opera production of an opera from Richard Wagner's Ring cycle, and so impressed the opera's board members, then beginning the search for a successor to founding general director Glynn Ross, that they first asked Jenkins to speak with the search committee -- and then, despite his lack of production experience, to take the director position. The board's gamble paid off:

"Under Jenkins' leadership, Seattle Opera's productions ... captured international acclaim, boosting the economy and raising the profile of Seattle as a thriving arts city. He has strengthened and extended the opera's reputation as a Wagner center -- producing all 10 of Wagner's major operas -- including two very different Ring productions" ("Mayor's Arts Awards ...").

In addition to winning acclaim for the operas he staged, Jenkins led the Seattle Opera team that worked with Seattle Center and Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) to design and build the striking Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, which became home to the opera and PNB in 2003.

Jenkins was noted for being very supportive of the opera's singers, and for being "[c]ompletely colorblind when it comes to casting" -- "particularly for giving great opportunities to black male singers" (Bargreen). The support could be mutual. Seattle music critic and composer Melinda Bargreen noted that tenor Vinson Cole (b. 1950) -- who received a Seattle Mayor's Arts Award in 2003, the awards' first year -- was among the singers in whose careers Jenkins played a major role. She also noted in her 2015 book Classical Seattle that a 1988 production of Orpheus and Eurydice, with Cole starring as Orpheus, was a "turning point" in Jenkins's career ("Vinson Cole, Art Corps ...").

The 2009 Mayor's Arts Award was just one of many honors Jenkins received in his long career. Two years later, in 2011, he received an Opera Honors Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Among his other awards over the years was one from ArtsFund for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts. In addition, Jenkins was named by Opera News as "one of the 25 'most powerful' names in American opera" and by The Seattle Times as "one of the 150 most influential people in Seattle/King County" (Bargreen).

Artist Trust

A group of artists and supporters of the arts founded Artist Trust in 1986 to support art in Washington by supporting the artists who produce it. The effort was spearheaded by longtime arts advocate Anne Focke (b. 1945) and a former University of Washington classmate, David Mendoza, who became the organization's first director. The nonprofit "provides artists the time and resources necessary to prosper" through financial support in the form of grants and fellowships ("Mayor's Arts Awards ..."). It also offers training and resources for those planning or pursuing professional careers as artists. Classes "teach the business of being an artist, from financial management to marketing and social media" ("Our Mission"), while print and online resources provide information specifically tailored to artists on topics such as employment, healthcare, and housing.

As of the 2009 award, Artist Trust had spent more than $5 million to support Washington artists, through grants, training, and resources; by 2017 the cumulative total had climbed to $10 million. In addition to this direct support, the organization worked to help artists connect with other artists and supporters, and also advocated for artists both locally and nationally. Among the many artists that Artist Trust supported over the years was fellow 2009 Mayor's Arts Award recipient Jesse Higman, who in 2012 was one of the recipients of funding through the organization's Grants for Artist Projects.

Northwest Tap Connection

Northwest Tap Connection describes itself as "A Race & Social Justice Oriented Studio Connecting Dance Across Communities" ("About Us"). Led by artistic director Melba Ayco, a tap-dance historian, the studio teaches dancers from age 5 to 19 not only the techniques of dance, but also self-discipline, respect for others, dance history, and love of dance. The studio specializes in teaching rhythm tap, but many other dance styles, among them African, jazz, modern, ballet, swing, ballroom, and hip-hop, are included in classes and performances. Ayco, a native of Louisiana, strives "to incorporate the mood of 'Down South' roots into the choreography performed by the company" ("Mayor's Arts Awards ...").

Many intermediate and advanced students at Northwest Tap Connection participate each year in an annual tap festival. They are encouraged to serve as ambassadors of the form, and have traveled to cities around the country. Advanced students have danced with some of the biggest names in tap dance, including Gregory Hines, the Nicholas Brothers, and Jeni LeGon. They have also performed the work of nationally known choreographers, among them Diane Walker, Lane Alexander, and Chester Whitmore.

Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra

Founded in 1942, Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra (SYSO) has grown to become the largest youth-symphony organization in the United States. By 2017 it served nearly 2,000 students a year in five academic-year orchestras and two summer-festival programs, in addition to providing instrumental-music instruction in some 25 Seattle-area public schools. As noted in its Mayor's Arts Awards description, "[f]or many of the region's young musicians, SYSO is their first taste of a musical life, and some have gone on to perform in the world's great concert halls" ("Mayor's Arts Awards ..."). To help make it possible for all musically talented children to have this opportunity, SYSO has provided financial aid, totaling more than $200,000 annually as of 2017, to participating students.

The organization's five orchestras are the flagship Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, directed by Stephen Radcliffe, which performs three concerts annually in the Seattle Symphony's Benaroya Hall, and the Junior Symphony Orchestra, Debut Symphony Orchestra, Symphonette Orchestra, and Prelude String Orchestra. SYSO's school programs began in 1990 with the Endangered Instruments Program (EIP), designed "to encourage music students to learn less commonly played instruments" ("Mayor's Arts Awards ..."). A second in-school program, Musical Pathways, was subsequently added to provide free group lessons for students beginning to learn an instrument.

During the summer, SYSO provides opportunities for students to participate in the annual Marrowstone Summer Music Festival in Bellingham, as well as offering two-week "Marrowstone in the City" programs in the Seattle area for beginning orchestra students. In 2016 SYSO partnered with the Seattle Conservatory of Music to create a comprehensive pre-college music-training program, in which students can participate in SYSO's academic-year orchestra program while also taking classes in music theory and music history, and general college-prep courses, at the conservatory.

The Ceremony

Around 400 people joined Mayor Nickels at the ceremony honoring the five recipients of the 2009 Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards. The crowd gathered at noon on Friday, September 4, around an outdoor stage in Seattle Center's Northwest Court as the Bumbershoot festival was getting underway.

Nancy Guppy, host of the Seattle Channel's Art Zone in Studio show, served as master of ceremonies for the awards presentation. A video profile of each recipient, shown before the award was presented, highlighted some of the accomplishments for which each was being honored.


"Mayor's Arts Awards: 2009 Recipients," Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed July 31, 2017 (; "Mayor Greg Nickels Lauds Local Artists, Arts Organizations," The Seattle Times, June 11, 2009 (; Melinda Bargreen, "Speight Jenkins: Gracefully Bowing Out of Seattle Opera," Ibid., August 3, 2014; Calandra Childers, "Meet Mayor's Arts Award Winners," September 29, 2009, Seattle Office of Arts and Culture Art Beat Blog accessed August 4, 2017 (; Amanda Manitach, "Jesse Higman's Beautiful Social Abstraction," City Arts, March 4, 2015 (; Lindsey Rae Gjording, "The Artist's Way: Jesse Higman," February 6, 2014, Vanguard Seattle website accessed August 4, 2017 (; "Award Winners/Artist Profile: Jesse Higman," Artist Trust website accessed August 1, 2017 (; "Our Mission," Artist Trust website accessed August 1, 2017 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Vinson Cole, Art Corps, Consolidated Works, and the Allen Foundation for the Arts receive the first Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards on August 29, 2003" (by Jen Kagan) and "Focke, Anne (b. 1945)" (by Sheila Farr), (accessed August 4, 2017); "About Us," Northwest Tap Connection website accessed August 8, 2017 (; Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra website accessed August 8, 2017 (; "About the Conservatory," Seattle Conservatory of Music website accessed August 8, 2017 (

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