The red shoes diary

The story of tango dancing, fancy pumps, and a fairy godmother.


In celebration of Women’s History Month this March, Featherstone Center for the Arts presented the “Backwards and in High Heels Show” in their Art Barn. “Backwards and in High Heels” refers to the fact that Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, except, you know, backwards and in high heels.

When Jay Lagemann heard about this show, he immediately lit up. Lagemann, the Vineyard sculptor perhaps best known for his iconic “Swordfish Harpooner” in Menemsha, had a piece he had completed about a year ago called “The Tango Dancers,” a fluid and energetic sculpture showing a couple dancing, the woman with her back dramatically arched and clearly going backward. Lagemann had done two Tango Dancers, a stainless steel version that was at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury, and a bronze version that was in his sculpture garden at his home in Chilmark.

And then something came to Lagemann in a vision: red high heels! The dancers in the existing sculpture were barefoot, but what, Lagemann thought, if the woman wore red high heels. The color against the dull bronze would pop and give the piece a fun, celebratory feeling. But with the deadline for the show rapidly breathing down on Lagemann, recasting a pair of shoes out of bronze was not an option. Besides, “I’m too lazy,” he joked.

But, Lagemann thought, who said they had to be made out of bronze? “It sure would be a whole lot easier if there was a fairy godmother around who could just make a beautiful pair of red high heels magically appear. Just like for Cinderella.”

Lagemann said that he also had twin granddaughters living next door who loved to make things out of duct tape — they even made high heels one time. Could they be his fairy godmother?

That night Lagemann did a little research on line and Googled “red high heels.” Of all the shoes that came up, he liked the ones by Kenneth Cole the best. And then he realized he had a Kenneth Cole connection.

Jennifer Pillsworth at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury had approached Lagemann last fall because someone wanted one of Lagemann’s sculptures, “Swinging Jenny,” and she wanted it the next day in Rye, N.Y. The woman wanted it for her and her husband’s 30th wedding anniversary; Lagemann couldn’t bring it down by the next day, but he did deliver it by that weekend. The woman was Maria Cole, none other than the wife of Kenneth Cole, the footwear designer.

Lagemann shared a love for Martha’s Vineyard with the Coles, they even had a summer house on the Island. So Lagemann thought perhaps he had found his fairy godmother after all: Maria Coles. He texted her about his idea for the red shoes, and soon he was on the phone with Ken Cole. Part of his pitch to Cole was that this would be a good thing for the Island, especially in March when it’s dark and the weather is dismal, and this would cheer people up — it would be joyful. Cole was all in.

There was no time for Cole to make a pair of shoes specially for “Ginger,” as she was called, so he overnighted the largest pair of red heels he had in stock. But they were delayed by a winter storm, so Lagemann had only a couple of days to make the shoes work. One of the problems was that Ginger was about seven feet tall, and the shoes were a little on the small side.

Lagemann said that in the ’70s he had once worked on special effects for “Jaws II,” and that taught him a lot about improvisation, so improvise he did. He had to perform a little last-minute surgery and split open the toe to make it fit. He credits Kate Hancock at Featherstone for making it work. “She said, Put a big red bow on the toe to cover up the split, and that did it.”

“You know,” said Lagemann, “if you intellectualize about the whole thing, you’d think the proportion of the shoe would be wrong, and having a Ph.D. in math from MIT, I knew a lot about intellectualizing. But when you look at it, it just works. Sometimes things that aren’t supposed to work just do.”

You have until April 1 to see Ginger and her red heels at Featherstone. After that, she’ll be retiring to Lagemann’s sculpture garden in Chilmark. Unless you want to take her home with you — but that will cost you about $55,000.

Presumably Lagemann will toss in the Kenneth Coles at no extra charge.