If, in a few years, you’re walking through downtown Yonkers and find yourself in a rain garden filled with statues memorializing anonymous slaves who lived in the city in the 17th and 18th centuries, you’ll have found the work of sculptor Vinnie Bagwell.
Within two years of taking up sculpture art in 1993, Bagwell, who is self-taught, received a commission to create the life-size sculpture of fellow Yonkers native Ella Fitzgerald that now stands in the heart of downtown. Then, in 2009, she attended an exhibit at Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers, about the Africans the Philipse family had kept as slaves, and approached one of the exhibit’s major champions, then-City Councilwoman Patricia McDow, about the idea of the Rain Garden (enslavedafricansraingarden.org).
“You may have an individual like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, but I discovered there aren’t many public art projects in the country that celebrate enslaved Africans as a group,” Bagwell says. “Slavery is an epic story. It spans almost 400 years, and the question is, how are you going to tell that in a public art project?”
Her answer was a series of five, life-sized sculptures that suggested the variety of slaves’ experiences: a beautiful woman carrying water, an older woman gardening, a boatman in a suit, and two children. “My sculptures have souls of their own,” she says.
Bagwell’s process takes about six months per statue. After making one-third-size models, her next step is to enlarge and mold the model, after which she will cast the full-sized sculptures in wax and then in bronze. The entire project, located on unused land adjacent to the lawn at Philipse Manor Hall, will cost up to $1.5 million, which has to be donated. Bagwell has estimated the project will take two years to complete in total.
“It’s important for people to remember,” Bagwell says. “People sometimes prefer to forget bad aspects of history, but they should understand them, accept them, and grow from them. It’s something that people should never forget—for everyone, not just for black people. Everyone should learn about where this place came from and that it’s our responsibility to keep evolving in a positive direction.”