- by Leah Matzke - Tied to his childhood home and love for art, New Ulm, Minnesota native Jason Jaspersen is the creative force behind a project to commemorate New Ulm’s internationally acclaimed artist, author and illustrator, Wanda Gag, in bronze for generations to come.
Growing up in New Ulm, Jaspersen says Wanda Gag and her work was something you heard about a lot. “The first time I remember being aware of Wanda Gag was at a workshop in high school. I remember visiting the Wanda Gag house, seeing her illustrations and learning about her life. Wanda’s rags to riches story in New Ulm is really something. Her father was an artist and on his deathbed he told Wanda to ‘finish what he could not.’ She supported the family through years of poverty, a real-life Cinderella story.”
When reflecting on Wanda Gag’s legacy, Jaspersen shares, “I think of her first as an artist. Through this project I have learned that she had a lot of drive and was a productive, imaginative woman. I also learned she was a serious gallery artist. She may be most famous for Millions of Cats and her other children’s books, but most don’t know that gallery art was her first love. Artists do not get to set their legacy.”
Jaspersen continues, “For both her books and art, Wanda was really internationally famous, something that is more difficult to appreciate when you live here in New Ulm, her home town. She was the first to span the page of a book with an illustration, likely asking ‘why not?’ and then finding a printer to help her make it happen.”
Scheduled for completion by the end of 2016, the Wanda Gag Sculpture Project started back in 2011 when Jaspersen first presented the idea after teaching a summer sculpting class and brought the concept to the Wanda Gag Association. A committee was formed in 2013 entitled the Wanda Gag Monument Committee to formally explore the project and collect ideas submitted from various artists. Eventually the project ended up in Jaspersen’s hands. This committee is still working diligently alongside Jaspersen.
“For an artist, getting a project like this is something of a catch 22—you can’t prove you can do it until you’ve done it, but you can’t do it until someone trusts you to try,” notes Jaspersen. “It is a first of its kind for me and I would love to do more bronze projects. I have done pieces larger than Hermann the German (officially known as Hermann Heights Monument, a 27 foot tall statue in New Ulm, MN). I have done life size relief sculpture and smaller scale figures, but to do a life size bronze takes both money and time to make.”
What started five years ago is now coming to life. “We have now officially had an exhibit, formally introducing the statue pose to the public as a ¼ scale version.” To complement the exhibit Jason did a painting of the model as envisioned to sit in front of the library.
Reflecting on the exhibit, which was held February 26th, 2016 at The Grand in New Ulm, Jaspersen shares, “It was the largest crowd ever at The Grand—packed! Wonderful evening and a great reception. People ask me about this project all the time the community support has been great. To embark on public art is kind of treacherous waters—so many people care and really want it right; their heart gets into it.”
Having completed a ¼ model the next stage for the project is the ½ model. When asked why not just move to the final, life size piece Jaspersen replied, “Some would say, ‘isn’t that more work?’ But scaling up allows me to work out technical problems and get familiar with how the form works on a smaller scale. Getting it right at this size is easier and I scale up from there. This allows me to say, ‘Are you sure?’ to myself and committee before investing in the full size piece.”
How will this piece affect future generations in New Ulm? Jaspersen admits, “I don’t know. You leave it and let it do what it is going to do, but that is why I love public sculpture—you don’t know the relationships it will create with those who encounter the piece for generations to come. Kids see things and parents won’t even know the impact or memories it will create. When I was a child of 3 or 4 years old, in New Ulm there was a motorcycle on a spring; I loved it and remember it to this day (it is still there). It is stuff like that, when a city can offer a shared experience with its community in the form of a sculpture like this—that is what excites me the most.”