Sculpting Panhandlers In Paradise

Arts & Culture

Pictured: Sculptor Jeff Riggan's Off The Grid series recreates scenes of homelessness in Sarasota/Bradenton. Photo by Jeff Riggan.

For many artists, moving to the Gulf Coast means painting beach scenes and palm trees, seascapes and sunny days. But for Jeff Riggan, who arrived in Manatee County in early 2020, paradise had an obvious problem. And with his latest sculptural series, Off The Grid, the artist hopes to shine an unconventional spotlight on an oft-recognized but all-too-ignored social ill.

“I know people who are homeless,” Riggan says, “who are living right off 64 under the overpass.” And the artist himself is no stranger to homelessness, having lost his home in the 2008 financial collapse and experienced it firsthand. Now on surer footing but still dismayed by what he sees around him, including a neighbor moving into their car because they couldn’t afford the ballooning rent, Riggan feels compelled to say something. Anything. “This could be anybody,” he says. “This could be you, me, your neighbors, your parents—anybody.” And one day, stopped at an intersection and watching the panhandlers move from car to car, it struck him: these scenes are as iconic of everyday Florida as any of its beaches. But only the latter ever show up in galleries.

Working with found objects and recycled materials, epoxy and clay, Riggan recreates these scenes in his signature “rusted and busted” style, all grime and grit and exposed baling wire, calling upon his experience both as a sculptor and as a guy who used to build theme park attractions for Universal Studios. Shaping scrap wood with a jigsaw and angle grinder, he blot-coats it with a homemade mixture of tile mastic, glue, handfuls of beach sand and black paint until it looks like sunbaked asphalt. Painted popsicle sticks become an upturned fruit crate and rectangles of waxed cardboard from a frozen pizza box become street signs. Most of the figure’s body is cobbled together from wooden pegs, discarded jewelry, bent wire and colored clay, but Riggan uses a two-part epoxy to sculpt the head, carefully hand-carving every line of its careworn face. “I put character into every last detail,” he says. “And I want you to see that these are handmade.”

Three of these Off The Grid dioramas have been completed already—the panhandler in the median, a tented homeless encampment and a beach scene complete with a movable swing—each inspired by something that Riggan has seen right here in Bradenton and Sarasota. “I don’t know the solution,” he says, “but I really hope that this can turn some heads.”

Currently working on expanding the project, Riggan is hoping to partner Off The Grid with one or some of the many nonprofits and agencies already trying to raise awareness and lend what effort he can. “Homelessness is an issue that people should be confronted with,” he says. “What are we going to do about this problem that’s growing and growing and growing?”

Pictured: Sculptor Jeff Riggan's Off The Grid series recreates scenes of homelessness in Sarasota/Bradenton. Photo by Jeff Riggan.

To view more from the artist, visit the website here:

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