Jeff Riggan made ground in Manatee County  just before the pandemic first peaked in Florida. A native Floridian returning from an Atlanta sojourn, folks may have recognized Riggan from his days haunting the Orlando scene, plying his trade at everything from murals and signage for mom-and-pop stores to building multiuse television sets for Nickelodeon shows and sculpting intricate and grand attractions for Universal Studios, like Poseidon’s Fury at Islands of Adventure, but this returned figure was a different man than the one they once knew, some strange and demented Geppetto borne to these shores on the weft of a strange tide and under cover of a peculiar fog. And he didn’t come alone.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

PHOTOGRAPHY BY WYATT KOSTYGAN

He calls them Bayou Buccaneers, this motley crew delivered of his own hands’ creation. Armed to the hand-carved teeth with miniature muskets and cutlasses, they bear names like Calico Jack and Captain Sawtooth—not to mention a whole bevy of beards: Blackbeard, Yellowbeard, Gingerbeard, etc.—all looking rather cadaverous and ghastly because the inner voice guiding their twisted creator consists of helpful tips like “put the skeleton on the outside.” Most while away the day engaged in eternal combat in one of Riggan’s many nautical dioramas; others remain mere heads leering with bare-toothed grimaces and jack-o’-lantern grins that entreat Riggan to complete his task and give them bodies and names and weapons and arms to wield them against their warring brethren. And he will. When the time is right. When they learn to speak.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

PHOTOGRAPHY BY WYATT KOSTYGAN

The birth of a Bayou Buccaneer begins with the face. Taking a block of simple pine, Riggan grinds out the bulbous cranium and drawn cheeks and eye sockets like sunken wells that comprise the base skeletal features of a carven corsair. Then he sets it aside, half-formed and new to the world, to decide what it wants to be.

“I have to give in to the free will of these characters,” the mad creator says. “They speak to me.” Only thus compelled to duty by obligation to his creation will he continue. With flotsam bodies formed of furniture bits and shaker peg limbs, Riggan strings all his piratical progeny together with baling wire sinew, each one coming out both sturdy and fully posable. Some get hooks; some get hands. Some get guns; some get knives. But the characters behind his creations emerge in the adornment of their faces—in the painting of gold teeth and wrapping of bandannas, the moth-eaten hats and the long scraggly hair sprouting from chin and scalp, hand-teased and affixed with toothpicks and epoxy.

Riggan never knows exactly how each Bayou Buccaneer will turn out, but the end result is always a little bit nurture, a little bit nature, as his craft adapts to his reality. Summed up: “I have to build something. What can I do with what I have on hand?” In true pirate fashion, there is no plan, only the currents of creation and Riggan’s hand on the rudder.  SRQ