Westchester artist forges community history in bronze

A Westchester artist is forging her community‘s history in bronze.

With every detail and pattern, Yonkers artist Vinnie Bagwell reshapes the history of his people.

You may not recognize Bagwell, but you may be familiar with his work: “The Breadth of Slavery” at the Yonkers Public Library. Sojourner Truth at Poughkeepsie and Frederick Douglass at Hofstra are just a few of his exhibits. “I didn’t think doing this kind of work would literally connect me to the story,” Bagwell says.

Born in Yonkers in the late 1950s, Bagwell has always had a gift for drawing. “My parents would brag about me.”

But after various jobs, she was looking for her place. At 36, in 1993, she tried her hand at sculpture for fun. “Four days later, I arrive with my first sculpture and I’m freaking out.”

But there were challenges, like how to make money in an expensive white male-dominated medium. She found public art grants and got her first commission from Yonkers in 1996 – a life-size bronze First Lady of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald. It was the first-ever sculpture commissioned by an American municipality of a contemporary African-American woman.

Bagwell’s success is all the more amazing because she is legally blind. “I was one of the first kids to wear hard contact lenses.”
Bagwell says she sees public art as a form of reparation, and she carves humanity into each enslaved statue with lessons. “How long can I engage you with work? Can I walk you around?”

For more than a decade, Bagwell has also worked on the “Enslaved Africans Rain Garden,” a Yonkers sculpture garden honoring the first legally freed enslaved Africans in the country. It should open its doors this spring.

She says that for a few years her phone has been ringing.

She says it’s exciting to hear about commissions like a new Dayton College $4 million competition to honor enslaved Africans. “It’s kind of like when the Lotto hits $900 million, you take all the restrictions off of your imagination and just think about the things you want to do.”

At 64, Bagwell isn’t done yet because she says that while we’re all Americans, we’re not all treated like Americans.