The Field Gallery in West Tisbury is recognizable for its Tom Maley sculptures of fanciful, exuberant, dancing women, but the first thing you see upon entering the yard is not a Maley, it’s a sculpture called “The Dance,” five women with their hands joined, dancing ecstatically in a circle. The sculpture is by Jay Lagemann. who is perhaps best known for his sculpture “The Swordfish Harpooner,” which was commissioned for the town of Chilmark’s tricentennial and has presided over Menemsha Harbor for 26 years.
You may also be aware of his sculpture titled “Backwards and in High Heels” a tango-dancing couple with the woman wearing red high heels, which was created two years ago for Women’s History Month, held at Featherstone Center for the Arts.
But back to “The Dance.” As you enter the Field Gallery now, you may notice something has changed. “The Dance,” which for six years has been a rich, dark brown shade — Rodin brown, it’s called — now is jade green, verdigris to be precise. What happened to the dancing girls? A side effect of the pandemic, perhaps? No, the girls are perfectly healthy, but to understand this shade shift, perhaps it would be instructive to go back to the beginning.
As I talked to Lagemann at the Field Gallery, he was wearing a blue ball cap and a white Swordfish Harpooner T shirt, and his eyes twinkled above his pale blue mask as he took me through the origins of “The Dance.”
“I originally did a small version of ‘The Dance’ in 2001 when I was on the beach in Thailand, recovering from a herniated disk,” Lagemann said. “I associate this piece with rejuvenation and getting well. It was a wonderful feeling, after being down and then coming back up.”
Lagemann always planned on doing a full-size version of “The Dance” at some point, but then life caught up with him. In 2007 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer; he was operated on in 2008, but by that time the cancer had already spread, so Lagemann decided to take a step back and reflect on the nature of life.
He went to Hawaii, camped on the beach, swam with dolphins, rode his mountain bike, and got strong again, and looking back, he realized that he’d had a great life. He had gone to Princeton, and did graduate studies in mathematics at MIT; he’d been a sailor, an author, an artist; and was lucky to be living in Chilmark on a compound with his loving wife and his grandchildren living next door.
Life had been good to Lagemann, and in time he recuperated. Then in 2011 he created a life-size version of “The Dance” constructed out of Silpro, a form of concrete applied over rebar and foam. And originally “The Dance” was a deep shade of red.
An old childhood friend of Lagemann’s, Jonathan Schiller, saw the sculpture in Lagemann’s studio and loved it, and wanted one for himself, so the two worked out a plan. Schiller would put up the money, and Lagemann would have another cast, this time out of bronze. Lagemann went to a foundry in Lancaster, Pa., and oversaw the casting, and the result was “The Dance,” but now in a deep brown bronze color.
Schiller wanted “The Dance” for a house he was building on the Island, but the house wasn’t completed yet, so the sculpture instead went to the Field Gallery, where it was then seen by Jim Symonds, who wanted it for his summer house on Long Island. Curiously, Symonds had gone to MIT undergraduate school and did his graduate studies in mathematics at Princeton, the reciprocal of Lagemann. Also, perhaps due to the popularity at the time of Jeff Koons, an internationally acclaimed sculptor who had done work in stainless steel, Symonds and Lagemann agreed to cast “The Dance” in stainless steel rather than bronze. The original bronze piece was sent to a foundry in Thailand, where Lagemann would oversee the casting, and three stainless copies of “The Dance” were cast. Schiller so much liked the new stainless steel “Dance” that he elected to take a stainless steel version for his new house, rather than the original bronze. And a family in Bethesda, Md., decided to take the third stainless steel copy.
So if you’re keeping score, that now leaves the original red Silpro sculpture that was used (and later destroyed) to make the bronze reproduction, which was then used to make the three stainless steel copies, but here’s where it gets a little tricky.
Just prior to the pandemic, Lagemann wanted to have another stainless steel copy made, but he wanted to have it formulated — a process that would allow him to assemble the sculpture out of highly polished sheets of stainless steel, resulting in an almost mirror-like finish. And for this he went to a foundry in China. Except he didn’t physically go to China, because of the pandemic, so he shipped the original bronze sculpture to the foundry so they could use it to make a mold.
The result was sensational. The new fabricated version is now in Lagemann’s home sculpture garden, and “it’s so reflective and shiny I could almost use it to shave,” Lagemann said.
But getting back to the jade green sculpture that now greets you as you enter the Field Gallery — well, that’s actually the original bronze sculpture that has stood at the gallery for years. While it was at the foundry in China to create a mold for the fabricated version, Lagemann had them change the color to green.
“I like the color,” Lagemann said, “I like the way it stands out.” Perhaps not as much as a shining stainless steel surface that is so reflective you can shave with it. But stand out it does, in its own quiet way.