Vineyarders visiting New York City may get a glimpse of a familiar sight if their travels bring them over toward the West Side Highway. One of the city’s newest landmark buildings, VIA 57 West, is now home to a huge outdoor sculpture by Island artist Jay Lagemann. The 18-foot by 22-foot bronze piece is a large version of one of Mr. Lagemann’s trademark designs, “Swinging Jenny,” which can be seen in smaller versions at the Field Gallery and a few other places around the Island.
The massive sculpture, comprised of two simplified human forms, shows a man in the playful act of swinging a little girl through the air. It’s an image of pure joy and imparts a sense of freedom. The man is bent backwards slightly bracing himself. The airborne child’s legs fly freely, and her hair blows in the wind. You can easily imagine the smiles on their faces — if they had faces rather than simple circles for heads.
VIA 57 West, where the sculpture was installed last October, is a striking pyramid-shaped building which has received a lot of attention for its unique design. Completed last May, the residential building is owned and operated by leading New York City real estate developers the Durst Organization. Mr. Lagemann is a longtime friend of Durst Organization chairman Douglas Durst. “He has some of my pieces,” Mr. Lagemann said. “When I started doing these large bronze pieces and got a show at the Academy Art Museum in Easton, Md., he said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this new building. Do you want to propose something?’” Mr. Lagemann decided that “Swinging Jenny” would be a good fit for the new building. “I think it’s probably my best image. It goes right through to people’s veins and gives them joy. They think of swinging their kids or being swung by their parents. It seemed really appropriate for the Dursts. It’s a family organization.”
Jenny is Mr. Lagemann’s stepdaughter Jennifer Christy, the Chilmark town clerk and an abstract artist who is represented by the Field Gallery. “Jenny is an identical twin,” Mr. Lagemann said. “I used to swing both of them.” Mr. Lagemann first created the image from pipe cleaners while traveling back to the Vineyard on the Islander 25 years ago. He has since created over 100 small bronze “Swinging Jennys” (for sale at the Granary Gallery), and larger painted steel versions, which have graced various Island institutions, businesses, and homes.
“I’ve been wanting to do it big,” Mr. Lagemann said. “I’ve been visualizing it for years. It looks just like I imagined. I feel like I really worked on this one for years to refine it.”
There were various challenges involved in creating the large sculpture. The piece is 18 feet tall, and the swinging girl is cantilevered at 22 feet. Mr. Lagemann drew on his scientific side for the engineering issues. Before pursuing sculpture full-time, he earned a doctorate in mathematical logic from MIT, and worked for IBM and, briefly, the Pentagon.
However, Mr. Lagemann claims to take a more casual approach to his designs. “Usually the way it happens is I just want to make something,” he said. “I’m very impatient. I want to see what it looks like in reality. I just slop it together, and very often it just falls apart. Then I beef it up to get it structurally sound.”
The artist credits his time working on the movie “Jaws 2” as an educational experience for his artwork. “Special effects was one of the major influences,” he said. “I deal with sculpture as a special effect. How do you get motion into something that is still, and at the same time have it cantilevered out? With special effects, you just keep trying until you find something that works.”
Mr. Lagemann is truly a DIY kind of guy. He built his own home in Chilmark, learned plumbing and electricity, and even dug his own well. “I enjoy getting my hands dirty and solving problems,” he said.
Perhaps Mr. Lagemann’s best-known piece of art on the Vineyard is the “Swordfish Harpooner” sculpture, located among the dunes at Menemsha Beach. The sculpture, which was erected 22 years ago for the Chilmark tricentennial, was removed last December to be recast. The original steel frame was rusting, and causing cracks in the concrete shell. While he was having the large “Swinging Jenny” cast at a foundry in Pennsylvania, Mr. Lagemann decided to have the swordfisherman recast as well. The replica has been returned to its home, and Mr. Lagemann promises that in its present condition, “it will last for 1,000 years.”
The artist likes to give credit to his wife and stepchildren for supporting and encouraging his work. To acknowledge their contributions, he had 12 members of the family — daughters, son-in-laws, and grandkids included — sign the New York sculpture on one of Jenny’s arms. “We’re a team,” he said.