The above photo is courtesy of Jonathan Lewis.
The arts inspired Vinnie Bagwell early in her childhood. She had a talent for drawing since the first time she picked up a pencil and later developed a love for painting in high school.
As a young girl growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, Bagwell found there to be a shortage of black artists to look up to. She remembers admiring the glossy pages of Ebony, Essence and Jet magazines, which highlight the African-American community, hoping she’d someday start a career in the arts.
Today, Bagwell is the artistic role model she never had. She began sculpting in 1993; she creates public art, telling the stories of black history.
Her first commissioned piece, “The First Lady of Jazz Ella Fitzgerald,” stands next to the Metro-North train station in Yonkers. It features Ella Fitzgerald, a black jazz singer, often referred to as the Queen of Jazz. Paid for by the Bureau of Community Development and the Office of Downtown and Waterfront Development of Yonkers, with the help of a federal grant, the piece is the first sculpture of a contemporary African-American woman to be commissioned by a municipality in the United States.
“My work elevates the culture of marginalized people,” Bagwell said during a virtual SJC Council for the Arts event last week. “And understand — when you don’t enable people to participate in society, that’s what we mean by marginalizing. Black people have been marginalized in so many ways that even we don’t realize that we’ve been marginalized, until you look at things a certain kind of way.”
Artist Inspires SJC Community and Beyond
The attentive SJC audience shared positive affirmations about Bagwell throughout the event. Ramona Candy, director of St. Joseph’s College Council for the Arts and the event moderator, said her Zoom chat box was filled with comments from attendees raving about the content of the presentation, Bagwell’s knowledge of black history, and her artistic insight.
Many artists filled the audience, asking Bagwell insightful questions about her craft.
For Bagwell, sculpting means a lot more than just creating art. She refers to public art as a calling, or her “occu-passion.”
“Emotions, feelings — this is the whole point of doing this kind of work,” Bagwell said. “You’re trying to connect souls to souls; spirits to spirits. These pieces are meant to be engaging.”
Bagwell continues to spark emotion and conversation, as she completes her fifth public art project: a sanctuary in the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden in the City of Yonkers, where visitors can take a walk, while admiring sculptures telling the stories of enslaved Africans in New York.