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New Ulm sculptor brings local legend to life

Artist finishes sculpture to honor artist, writer Wanda Gag

If you can imagine, perhaps one of Wanda Gag’s curious cats from her book Millions of Cats still lives in the backyard art studio of Jason Jaspersen when his pet Tudy greets him each time he opens the door to work on another project.

Jason Jaspersen’s New Ulm studio. Photo by Steve Palmer

Jason Jaspersen’s New Ulm studio. Photo by Steve Palmer

For much of the past five years Jaspersen has been consumed with the detailed creative process of capturing the likeness of Wanda Gag in a life-size bronze sculpture which includes a cat in honor of her most famous book.

Ever since he was commissioned by the Wanda Gag Monument Committee, Jaspersen has spent countless hours to form a sculpture that was recently unveiled and now rests on a pedestal placed near the front entrance of the New Ulm Library. The intent is to greet everyone and welcome them into the world of words and the life of the talented Gag, who was born in New Ulm in 1893 where she grew up before moving to New York City at age 24.

“I think another reason the committee was interested in a sculpture of Wanda was that it could help serve as a constant reminder to the community who embraced her work but needed to learn more about her life, career achievements and legacy each time they opened the door to the library,” Jaspersen commented.

Close up of Wanda Gag’s face in Jaspersen’s work.  Contributed photo

Close up of Wanda Gag’s face in Jaspersen’s work. Contributed photo

Gag wrote and illustrated the acclaimed children’s book Millions of Cats which was published in 1928 and is the oldest American picture book still in print. Her father was the well-known German-Bohemian immigrant artist and photographer Anton Gag who inspired Wanda to a distinguished career as a commercial illustrator, print maker, artist and writer. She received international recognition and awards for her work in the 1920s and ‘30s. She died of lung cancer at the age of 53 in 1946.

Her childhood home in New Ulm has been carefully restored and is now the Wanda Gag House, a museum and interpretive center. Many of her prints, drawings and watercolors are in the collection of numerous museums worldwide.

Jaspersen, 39, is a native of New Ulm and a member of the Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School teaching staff for the past 15 years. His sculpture of Gag is among several public pieces of art he’s completed for the city, so he is no stranger to large-scale projects.

Included in his New Ulm portfolio are two paintings which hang in the public library, a bronze bust at city hall, Herman the German’s footprint, Herbie the Hedgehog bronze sculpture in German Park and the Gertie Goose mascot for the Goosetown section of town in Riverside Park.

“New Ulm is a huge outdoor gallery for beautifully displaying many other artistic things which tell our own distinct story,” Jasperson noted. “The history and culture of New Ulm combines to create a rich heritage for which the community is so well known.”

Jaspersen said the huge identifying feature is the Herman the German statue monument, but he believes the addition of the Wanda Gag piece has the potential to amplify that and become another jewel in New Ulm’s crown. “Wanda’s sculpture will help us celebrate an important figure in the creative heritage of New Ulm. It fits into the fabric of the community and recognizes Wanda as living an engaged way of life,” he stated.

Jaspersen said his interest in art began through his Japanese grandmother and grandfather when he was a little 5-year-old boy. “My grandfather was a missionary in Japan after WW II, and grandmother had a talent for painting. She sent me a painting of a Japanese landscape that hung in my room. My mother was born in Japan and was a creative person too as was my dad who was a skilled woodworker,” Jaspersen stated.

“So, I grew up in a household that was a good example of people making things, and it didn’t seem like a stretch for me to be interested in doing the same,” he noted. He studied everything he could find about art history and developed an appreciation for comic book art and how the energy of the drawings was crucial to developing the storytelling of the character.

Jaspersen said the most challenging part of designing the Gag monument was to show her reading out of a book and gathering information while connecting with the cat. “Her body language communicates an urgency to understand, and the cat is equally intrigued and reciprocates by studying the expression on Wanda’s face,” he said. “Life is interesting for those who are interested, and the cat looking back at Wanda is sort of a mirror reflection of their awareness with each other.”

Jaspersen said the intent of the sculpture is more than a concept of the piece being just a memorial but something beyond. “It’s a suggestion advocating being in the present, living your life and paying attention to what’s right in front of you and doing something with it,” he commented.

Jaspersen said he wanted to create a sculpture that celebrates Wanda’s talents. “Her artwork and books help us see ordinary things in extraordinary ways. This monument should inspire viewers to embrace everyday life, to realize there are more questions to ask, more ways to explore and discover,” he added.

Jaspersen’s concept of his sculpture was the hardest thing to visualize and took the most effort. He could have followed the option of designing a standing Wanda figure like so many other monuments but opted for a seated, barefooted Wanda with her distinct hairstyle that “theoretically is a working moment for her rather than a posed or contrived approach,” he explained.

Jaspersen said he wanted Wanda’s sculpture to be not so much about a particular year but rather about encapsulating youthful energy and the spirit of an entire life. “The brain power needed for something like this is quite involved to get the right measurements, welding the skeleton frame, making rubber molds, pouring and applying plaster and building it all out of nothing was a challenge.”

Jaspersen said the entire process can be full of pitfalls. “It’s hard, lonely, serious work to get the full scale clay model just right,” he recalled. “There was a moment when I had to make a difficult decision to get Wanda’s hands in the right position. I had to decide whether to leave it alone or fix it. Essentially, I ended up amputating her arm and starting over.”

To do that, he had to cut the model in several places, swing her shoulder back and weld it back into place again. “That’s a decision artists don’t easily make, but you make the choice, and it turned out the way I wanted it. In the end nobody knows or sees the change, but it’s all part of the steps you face in the process of creating,” he remarked.

For a long time Jaspersen’s idea-filled mind thought a monument of some type should be built to recognize Gag’s inherited passion, sensitivity and skill from her famous father, Anton.

“The Gag family pioneered artistic expression here when they arrived on the Minnesota frontier,” he said. “It’s where she became curious about the physical world and the imaginative world within her.”

At Jaspersen’s suggestion, the Wanda Gag Monument Committee liked the idea of erecting a monument and began the fundraising effort to make the $60,000 project a reality to cover the expenses of an artist’s fee, site excavation, utilities, bronze cast, installation and perpetual maintenance. “The project has been supported tremendously by the community as a lot of people stepped forward and contributed funds,” he said.

Jason Jaspersen, of New Ulm, was commissioned by the Wanda Gag Monument Committee to capture the likeness and essence of the literary figure who called New Ulm home during her childhood years. Jaspersen is pictured with four renderings of the sculpture in his New Ulm stuido. The sculpture was set to be unveiled on Nov. 25  Contributed photo

Jason Jaspersen, of New Ulm, was commissioned by the Wanda Gag Monument Committee to capture the likeness and essence of the literary figure who called New Ulm home during her childhood years. Jaspersen is pictured with four renderings of the sculpture in his New Ulm stuido. The sculpture was set to be unveiled on Nov. 25 Contributed photo

But Jaspersen wasn’t the original choice to be the project sculptor. “At first I served as an advisor and did some sketches from models that I liked,” he recalled. “I felt like I was their artist, but the committee couldn’t obtain an arts grant with just one artist in mind so they had to open it up to others. They got submissions from around the country and eventually settled on an artist from Colorado. But then there were some contractual problems so they came back to me as a representative of New Ulm to produce the sculpture.”

Jaspersen said it was a “leap of faith” for the committee going from an established artist in bronze casts to selecting him with a more limited portfolio. He’s satisfied with how the project turned out as it transformed from “the ugly duckling stage” to an inspiring piece of art for generations to enjoy. “It’s been a good experience to get a commission in bronze art and be part of a rare opportunity in the making of an original, beautiful and long-lasting testimony to Wanda. I felt confident I could do it, and I’m thankful for the committee’s trust in me,” he related.

Jaspersen noted that the project will naturally boost an interest in Wanda’s life and works.

“By building this monument we create a connection between the past and future. Her creative journey going from New Ulm to New York can inspire future endeavors for others.”

And Jaspersen said that includes him as well. “I’m still a young artist, but I know my time is limited on earth and that’s what pushes me forward. There is so much left to do,” he stated.

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