Davey Highben confronts his ghosts, finds ‘Home Sweet Gallery’

The artist’s Parsons Avenue residence will serve as a homespun gallery for “Never Beg for a Seat When You Can Build Your Own Table,” which takes place on Sunday, Oct. 22.
Paintings by Blenkm Highben
Paintings by Blenkm HighbenCourtesy Davey Highben

There are paintings everywhere you look in Davey Highben’s Parsons Avenue residence, which the artist recently dubbed Home Sweet Gallery.

The work hangs on the walls, sits framed on shelves and stacked in thick piles on the floor, and is even painted directly onto furniture, including the top of his living room coffee table.

Among the assemblage is a collection of drawings Highben, 49, did as a child, including a stick-figure portrait of his late mother. “I still pretty much draw the same, but notice the feet look weird – the blue [crayon] – it’s a wheelchair. Then these would be the wheelchair pads, the feet on the pads, the wheels,” said the artist, whose mom had multiple sclerosis. “This was done in 1978. And it hasn’t stopped. It’s literally nonstop.”

Highben traced his early obsession with art to the experiences he had navigating the world alongside his mother, and the way he frequently saw people react in her presence. “The abuse she got as a crippled person in society, it made me disgusted, and so I removed myself from it and threw myself into art and music,” said Highben, who recorded and toured in My Uncle Wayne and the Altered States of the United Snakes. “And I’ve been beating this dead horse, which is my mother’s ghost, and seeing how far it will take me. If I was ambitious, and if I was still a romantic dreamer, I would say MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) by [age] 60. That would be the fucking goal. But realistically, looking out the window, I’ll be happy with tomorrow.”

The tensions between the private act of creation and the public-facing realities that come with being an artist have recently increased within Highben, who earlier this year exited his Chromedge studio in Franklinton, describing himself as ill-suited for a life in which his passion is so deeply entwined with his career. Attempting to navigate this divide, Highben said, nearly cost him everything in this last year: his marriage, his health, his sanity. And so, his current plans involve staging a series of small art shows leading to “an over the top” 2024 exhibition, at which point he intends to withdraw from public life as an artist. 

“Chasing shows, chasing galleries, chasing fucking Scrawl, give me a break,” said Highben, who this weekend will host the first in this series of smaller exhibitions, “Never Beg for a Seat When You Can Build Your Own Table.” The show takes place at 1098 Parsons Ave. from noon to sunset on Sunday, Oct. 22 and features contributions from Blenkm Highben, the Great Richini, Miss Mandy and Christopher Cropper, among others. “If you have something that you love, you’re supposed to use that to make your money, right? And I can see it. I can see the trees through the forest. I just don’t know if my endurance is as good as I think it is.”

The art, however, will never go away, with Highben describing the act of creation both as a means of helping to find some sense of order in the chaotic swirl of existence and an unrelenting weight from which he will never find release.

“It’s an ugly roller coaster,” he said, adding that these collective peaks and valleys tend to intensify during this time of year. “To be more transparent, my mom was born on October 10 and her death date is November 11. Since her death, which was in 2001, October through December have been a fucking nightmare for me. I would quit jobs. I would wreck relationships. I would burn every fucking bridge for whatever reason. Slight me in the lightest, ‘Fuck you! I’m done!’ It’s not healthy, and it’s probably bipolar as hell, but it’s who I am, and I have gotten better.”

Now, Highben said, he can generally work through his seasonal demons in a span of a couple of days rather than the months formerly required. In those moments when the grief hits, though, it remains unrelenting, leading the artist to question everything about his past and his path forward.

“I have to make sense of my life. I have to make sense of those years when I hated my mom as a stupid teenager because she was sick, and I was embarrassed. I have to make sense of the 20 years I quote-unquote ‘wasted’ just playing music, not saving money, not investing, not preparing for any kind of future. I have to make sense of being surrounded by literally thousands of pieces of art all of my life,” he said. “I have 49 days left of being 49, and this is all I know. I have to put a rubber stamp on it at some point so I can move on and grow, instead of being this artist who’s standing in a puddle … kicking, sobbing and screaming.”

Highben said he has been helped along in this process by Martin Blenkinsopp, his partner in Blenkm Highben, an ongoing collaboration in which the two artists swap a painting back and forth, advancing or obliterating ideas created by the other and allowing the canvas to evolve in myriad unexpected ways. “It’s more about the discovery that happens in the voyage than the ending,” Highben said. “And thank God Martin came along and gave me something else to focus on.”

Home Sweet Gallery and “Never Beg for a Seat” have provided similarly needed distraction as of late, while also introducing a sense of anticipation Highben said has been long absent. “It’s exciting, scary. It’s overwhelming,” he said. “I feel like I did when I was stepping onstage at 22 for the first time.”

Despite the memory-weighted heaviness of this season, there were multiple other points in our interview, which stretched out over nearly 90 minutes on a Sunday morning in mid-October, when the fog lifted.

At Two Dollar Radio Headquarters, Highben briefly swapped parenting war stories with author and Anyway Records founder Bela Koe-Krompecher, the two sharing in the challenges of raising teenage kids. And walking through German Village toward the end of our conversation, Highben playfully prodded himself for tearing up while talking about his mom and his ongoing struggle to reconcile the public and private aspects of making art. 

“All those crocodile tears are trivial. It’s me getting emotional about the past, the present, the failures and the failures,” he said, and laughed. “Where’s my red convertible? Is this my midlife crisis? And if this is how I’m expressing myself at my midlife crisis, fuck. I would like a little financial backing so it could be a little brighter, and so I could make it as psychedelic as I intended it to be.”

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