Gillian Jagger - BlueStone Press
September 18, 2020

Gillian Jagger

Jagger on a lifetime of art, philosophy and teaching


Living on the edge of Kerhonkson for several decades now, artist Gillian Jagger has been creating large-scale sculpture, many pieces of which occupy a collection of barns on and near her property. Now in her 80s and with a lifetime of art and teaching behind her, she is a treasure of art stories and philosophy, born of her own participation in an iconic period of the New York City art scene history. Her work still speaks to generations today, giving a voice to the environment and all forms of life.

Jagger, who studied painting at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), was a contemporary and friend of Andy Warhol.

“I did come to know him very well in those early years,” she said. “What he did for people was so kind and generous. He’d come and sit and tell me ‘You’re the real thing, I envy you. You don’t have to think about choice or anything.’ And I would say, but we’re all starving,” she laughed. Jagger showed at Warhol’s co-op gallery and fondly remembers the way he brought artists together.

“I don’t think he will ever be understood for that childlike quality and at the same time great generosity. He found a world he could join with, and if he got their appreciation he went with it and led it and opened it and let other people join.”

“He called me once and said he had a Siamese cat,” Jagger said. “I walked up the five flights of his brownstone, every floor was white, the furniture was covered with white sheets, and then there he was on the top floor with his mother, his easels and these cats. And I walked off with Orpheus, who was with me for 18 years,” she said.

In the 1960s Jagger made her own splash with her modern abstract expressionist work created from plaster casts of manhole covers.
“I was casting facts because I couldn’t believe in the metaphors,” she said. 
The work received enormous attention and was instantly labeled pop art.

“I didn’t like it,” she said. “That wasn’t what I was going for. I was trying to make a statement about what would be here when we were all gone.”

In the film “Casting Faith: A Portrait of Gillian Jagger,” the late former chief art critic of the Village Voice, John Perrault, said of Jagger, “It was immediately clear to me that she was as far away from pop art as you can get. If she had been a different kind of artist she could have gone with that, made a whole career and been the manhole cover artist ... It was her art guardian angel or whatever saying this is not for you.”

Jagger left the country for a time to escape the attention. “They were making me something that I wasn’t,” she said. “They said I ran away from success, but I really knew what I was following. Where they went was different from where I went. I went to land and nature, and they went to the A&P. In the long run it’s worked for me. It got me jobs teaching. And that’s worked well for me,” she said. In 1968 Jagger became a professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she taught for 40 years. She made her permanent home in Kerhonkson. “It reminded me of my home in England,” she said. “I felt I belonged here.”

Jagger is the daughter of Charles Sergeant Jagger, the well-known British sculptor of war memorials. Gillian’s father died when she was 7 years old. After her father’s passing, Gillian’s mother had the family dog, with whom Gillian felt especially close, put to sleep when it seemed to fall into a depression. A few years later Gillian’s older sister died of spinal meningitis at the age of 12. Through her art, Gillian has continually addressed the fragility of life, creating work that would be a voice for beings who couldn’t speak for themselves.

When a neighboring farmer shot a pregnant white doe of which Jagger had become fond, she cast the dead animal in plaster and memorialized mother and babies suspended in the air by wires. She would later create a similar piece from plaster casts of her favorite horse, which died suddenly one morning after becoming impaled on a fence post. She incorporated casts of other animals and eventually included a naturally mummified deer and two cats that she found in nearby fields. But the focus for Jagger is unmistakably on life.

“When I found a deer in a field that had totally dried in the hot sun, I brought it to the studio thinking that I would cast it. And I somehow couldn’t seem to put plaster on it. It was so beautiful in its own right. It had dried in the full glorious force of life with its leg in the air as if it was leaping. It hung in the studio for quite a while because I thought it wasn’t going to show anywhere,” Jagger said. “Then I saw a Damien Hirst show in New York City, and it bothered me so much seeing the animals displayed in formaldehyde and young people grinning and not knowing what to do.”

Around the same time Jagger had enlisted the help of a neighbor to move one of her pieces. He saw the deer hanging her studio.

“He was standing there staring at it with his back to me, and I said are you thinking about deer season coming up? And he said, ‘No, I’m thinking about how cruel I was to animals when I was a kid.’ And I thought if that piece said that to him, then he got something of what I got from that deer. I think it gave me the courage to take it out of hiding.” The deer became the center of “Matrice” and drew the attention of former New York City gallery owner Phyllis Kind, who insisted on installing the piece. “I said to Phyllis, why would you want to show this piece? You don’t know anything about large-scale sculpture. And she said, I want people to walk into this gallery and say Wow.”

In fact there are very few of Jagger’s pieces that do not cause one to step back before feeling a sense of awe, partly from her composition and use of raw materials and partly from the sheer size of the art. Many involve huge sections of trees, often split open to reveal textures in the hollowed-out voids. Sometimes she adds metal or stone pieces or bits of paint and hoists the trunks into the air with chains and pulleys that have become integral parts of her work.

“It’s kind of a calling the tree will have for me that I don’t quite understand, that I keep going back to,” she said. “I do feel I’m pushed around by these things. I’m not in command of it. They are all in command of me. They call me.”

Jagger is very hands-on in creating her massive pieces, only occasionally requiring the assistance of a helper. She recalled one day when she was on a tall ladder with a very large saw, carving a section of tree suspended from the barn rafters. “I had just bought a large ripping blade, and the fellow I bought it from was curious and came by to see what I was doing with it. When he saw me way up on the ladder he said ‘You can’t do that!’ and I said, I can, and thank you for the ripping blade. He watched me work a little and then he insisted on helping me. You can tell which were his cuts because they’re much straighter than mine. He didn’t quite get what I was going for,” she said.

“The tree has a system and a life span,” Jagger said. “It has a wisdom to me. Its wisdom is what I want to somehow transmit. So the closer I can get to using the actual tree so that it speaks for itself, the better off I am. It’s my teacher so I’d like to present it so it can talk to others.”

Impossible to ignore is the massive amount of work that must be required to create one of Jagger’s sculptures. “People have often said to me, ‘So what’s your next sculpture going to be?’ and I’ve said I hope there won’t be one because it takes so much out of me. But there always is, of course,” she said.

Even now she has two pieces going concurrently. “I stopped working on one for a while because it got so cold in that particular barn. The other piece is in a heated studio,” she said.

Jagger often builds on an idea from years past, sometimes joining two pieces into one. One of her current projects builds on an earlier work that was inspired by a trip with her niece to a cave in the south of France where archeologists discovered wall paintings of animals. The skeleton of the woman believed to be the creator of the images was curled up beneath the pictures. Jagger was so moved she created a piece in response.

“I thought, how could I talk back to her?” she said.

Her answer was a three-dimensional bull sculpted from an intricate network of wires representing the circulatory and nervous systems of the animal.

“I’ve sort of created the creature from the inside out. It’s sort of like going into something and understanding it more deeply. If you work with it from inside out, there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

At the root of Jagger’s work seems to be the perpetual desire to draw attention to the connection between ourselves and all other living things. 
“I feel as human beings that we had sort of lost track of what was important in nature,” she said. “I would say the drive with me is empathy. It’s the only thing I deeply believe in and would cure our ills for the most part, including war, politics and everything else.”



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