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The creator of the leaping lawn fish honored: Meredith Bergmann’s latest sculpture set for Central Park

It’s one of those rare works of art that at first sight produces immediate smiles. A large — 13 feet nose to tail — white fish breaks the surface of waves on a green lawn, the head and a fin reaching up and out, the middle of the body still under the surface of the grass, and the tail following.

Part of the magic of  the sculpture on a Prospect Avenue lawn is that the reinforced concrete structure is light and liquid, moving before your eyes.

Sculptor Meredith Bergmann’s fish has had different names, but remains constant, a delight for all ages, and one of the sights Islanders savor every time they pass, and take first-time visitors to see. Seeing other’s reaction when they first get a look at the sculpted fish is almost as good as the memory of their own first viewing.

A true Island landmark, the present owner of the house, Lisa Kelland, said she doesn’t have to give the street number to invited guests, but just say, “It’s the house with the fish.”

Ms. Bergmann, who crafted and installed the piece in September 1983 at her family’s summer home, is a world-renowned, prize-winning sculptor, with work on view in museums around the world; her public art is on display all over the country, including the U.S. Capitol, and a memorial to the victims of 9/11 in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Ms. Bergmann’s ‘September 11th,’ a memorial for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, made with bronze, steel and glass fragments from the rubble of the World Trade Center. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

She’s back in the news these days, with her massive, 14-foot-high bronze statue of three of America’s most heroic women, named “The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument,” to be unveiled in New York’s Central Park on Aug. 26 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of American women’s victory in achieving the right to vote. The New York Times celebrated the work, and Ms. Bergmann, in an extensive feature article on Aug. 7. 

Her design was chosen first out of over a hundred submissions. The striking rendering of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth at a table involved in lively conversation, was two years in the making.

Meredith Bergmann with The Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

The sculpture is groundbreaking in many ways, not least that it is, as The Times reported, “the only monument honoring real women [in Central Park]. In its 167-year history, the park has been a leafy, lush home to about two dozen statues of men, mostly white, and fictional or mythical female characters … but no historical women.”

In an age when public monuments are under fierce scrutiny, Ms. Bergmann’s sculpture is welcome news. She has been there before, however. In 2003 she created the Boston Women’s Memorial, featuring Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone.

An Island summer kid

She grew up in Montclair, N.J. with her parents, Lloyd and Ruth Gang, and her older brother Stephen, and younger sister, Laura. Across the street was the Hunt family, Bridgford and Esther, and their children, Bridg, Ainsworth and Selina. “The kids were all our ages,” Ms. Bergmann said, “and our families became close.”

So close, said Bridg Hunt, general manager of the North Ferry, that “Meredith’s family was my family,” and vice versa.

The Hunts had a summer cottage on Shelter Island in those days and invited the Gang family out. Ms. Bergmann’s first summer was in the early 1960s, when she was six. Every summer after, they rented places on the Island.

“It was beautiful,” she remembered, and spoke about the joys of fishing with her father or with the Hunt kids.

“We’d capture our own bait and fish off docks and boats for porgies,” she said.

In 1965, when she was 10, her family bought the house on Prospect Avenue as a summer place.

She became intimately acquainted with the rippling wave of lawn rolling down to the street. “My father would get us out to cut it with hand-held scythes, kind of like a golf club with a blade on the end,” Ms. Bergmann said. “We kept those banks in very good trim.”

Years later, after attending university and art schools, the lawn stirred ideas. “There was precise, Victorian landscaping  all around the house, with lovely symmetrical plantings of rhododendrons,” she said, adding that the idea of a fish breaking through the waves was “a way to have fun with it.”

A fish called Jonathan

In the early 1980s she thought of a sculpture in two sections for the lawn. Her boyfriend at the time — now her husband, writer and director Michael Bergmann — was going on a 10-day business trip to the West Coast, and Ms. Bergmann settled in at the house on Prospect Avenue to plot a new work.

“I wanted to make large outdoor sculptures, but I had no budget, no money for bronze castings that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said. “But I found a book, ‘Sculpting in Cement,” and got the idea for the fish on the front lawn. I was also thinking of the times I went fishing with my father.”

She got to work on the front porch, drafting and making a “maquette,” or a scale model. “Part of making the maquette was to convince my parents that this was going to be O.K., and I wasn’t going to screw up their front lawn,” Ms. Bergman said, laughing.

She used Portland cement, steel wool and an “acrylic medium instead of water so it could be waterproof, weatherproof, and crack-proof,” Ms. Bergmann said. A steel pipe was installed to link the two pieces.

After the fish appeared on the lawn, it was obvious her mother approved. There was an installation ceremony, with Ms. Gang cutting a ribbon between the two pieces of the fish.

It has been called “Finned Victory” or “Uphill Fish.” But for the Bergmanns, it’s “Jonathan.”

“Michael wrote a poem when he was a boy about a fish called Jonathan,” Ms. Bergman said.

Summer and strength

Ms. Bergmann lives in Ridgefield, Conn. now, with Michael and their son Daniel. She was asked about the role of women in her life when she was a little girl, in light of her Central Park sculpture honoring women who changed the world.

She mentioned an Island neighbor, Celeste Underhill, “a widow in business. She was out in the world, in charge of things. And I remember Priscilla Underhill, our next-door neighbor for a while. She took us blackberry picking at Hay Beach, and lived in New York City, which impressed me no end.”

And Esther Hunt, who, Ms. Bergmann said, has always been an inspiration. “She was athletic, nautical, could sail anything, and she was an artist,” Ms. Bergmann said.

She described Ms. Hunt as a painter and a sculptor who brought everyone a sense of delight. “Esther made environments and decorations for our elementary school PTA fundraisers that were astonishing,” she remembered. “She could transform a gymnasium into something out of ‘Peter Pan’ or ‘Alice In Wonderland.’ Her Halloween costumes and environments were truly terrifying.”

The three women she mentioned shared qualities of strength and having joy in life, which were imparted to the little girl. Those qualities are cast in bronze in Ms. Bergmann’s latest work for Central Park, and in a concrete fish forever leaping on a Prospect Avenue lawn.

(Credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)