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' ... His artwork is really exceptional': Man with physical disabilities makes his mark on the St. Augustine art community

After a four-wheeling accident turned RJ Higgins into an incomplete quadriplegic, he's turning tragedy and trash into masterpieces.

A St. Augustine man is making his impression on the local art industry turning tragedy and trash into hard-earned treasure.

The pieces are incredible, but it’s the artist’s story that gives them even more value.

“I was on life-support for 8 days, in the ICU for 18,” said RJ Higgins, the artist.

Nine years ago, Higgins was riding a four-wheeler on his property, when he lost control over gravel and crashed into a tree.

“It was a hangman’s fracture, or internal decapitation was another way to say it,” Higgins said.

Higgins lost feeling in his body from his chest, down. Today, he calls himself an incomplete quadriplegic, fracturing his spinal cord in the areas C1-C4. 

“I remember asking the paramedic, ‘why are my arms behind me?’ He shook his head and I looked down and my arms were next to me,” Higgins said. “I knew at that moment something very wrong had happened.”

He knew it was a long road to recovery. It was his wife and children that motivated him to be the best he could be.

“When we got married it was a partnership—it was we were in this together,” Higgins said. “I knew she was willing to take care of me but I also knew this isn’t what she signed up for. And my kids needed a dad. How are they going to grow up without me?”

Through years of pain and suffering, Higgins got out of the wheelchair and up on his feet. He still had no feeling from the chest-down but was learning to move his limbs from muscle memory.

When it came to a career, Higgins felt lost as he couldn’t go back to being an industrial mechanic.

“Now I can’t even pick up my arms,” Higgins said. “What’s my place in this world?”

He went back to school to be a math teacher. He decided to take art electives to work on the motor skills in his arms.

“I started drawing a sea turtle,” Higgins said. “I showed it to my friends and one of my friends, she said ‘I want it.’ I said ‘here’ and she said ‘no I want to buy it.’ And that was the catalyst.”

He began drawing, welding and woodworking, but not without great difficulty.

“I have spasticity constantly,” Higgins said. “My hands shake.”

With no feeling in his arms and hands, he needs to concentrate on holding tools.

“I cannot wear gloves because that means I cannot see my hands and I don’t know what they’re doing,” Higgins said. “The scariest part is I can’t feel heat. Hot or cold. Extremes—it doesn’t matter.”

Higgins’ creations came from what some would say is junk, like old propane tanks and broken fences.

He’s turned that junk into masterpieces to bring to the St. Augustine farmer’s market. That’s where he caught Wendy Tatter’s eye. Tatter is the owner of W.B. Tatter Studio Gallery.

“The fact that he could do what he does with his impairment is incredible because his artwork is really exceptional,” Tatter said.

Higgins had his first show on Sunday, and it was wildly successful.

Now, he needs to keep up with the demand for his art. You can find Higgins' work at the St. Augustine Farmer’s Market on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. and at the W.B. Tatter Studio Gallery.