Monumental Art

Sculptor Vinnie Bagwell (far right) has welcomed several groups of Sarah Lawrence students, faculty, and staff into her studio.

Philipse Manor Hall, whose construction commenced in 1682, is the oldest standing building in Westchester County. But its age is not its only historical significance: Sixty-six years before the Emancipation Proclamation, New York Governor John Jay, who had previously served as the nation’s first chief justice, signed legislation that eventually freed all slaves in New York State, including six who resided at Philipse Manor Hall.

When Yonkers-born sculptor and writer Vinnie Bagwell learned this chapter of local history, she felt compelled to pay tribute to the enslaved Africans. An untutored artist, Bagwell set out to create the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden, an urban-heritage sculpture garden. Life-size bronze sculptures representing the freed slaves from Philipse Manor Hall will stand along the Yonkers waterfront.

Bagwell approached Sarah Lawrence to become a community partner in the initiative. As a result, she unveiled the first full-size sculpture, I’Satta, at the Esther Raushenbush Library. The College also hosted an artist talk by Bagwell drawing a link between the history of slavery and its relevance to current movements, such as Black Lives Matter.

Natalie Gross, director of diversity and campus engagement, calls the Sarah Lawrence partnership with Bagwell “a meaningful way to continue building the Yonkers community connection and also to bring a conversation to campus we don’t often have—what and how vestiges of slavery are still manifested in the United States.”

Bagwell sees the project as part of her larger mission as an artist. “I like to create things that are beautiful, but also meaningful,” she says. “As an African American, I feel it’s my purpose and responsibility to preserve our culture and history, so others can see the beauty of black people.”