At entrance of the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens stands one of sculptor Jenny Hager’s most ambitious projects: a steel, mosaic-style giraffe standing at a towering height of twenty feet- about a foot taller than the largest live giraffe on record. This impressive piece is just one example of how Hager’s public sculptures have added flair to the Jacksonville area and beyond.
While Hager has always had a passion for art, she didn’t find her interest in sculpture straight away. She started off as a painter throughout high school, and had originally planned to pursue painting as a career.
“I thought I was going to college to be a painter,” Hager said. “But I took my first sculpture class, and got hooked.”
Hager attended graduate school at California’s San Jose State University, after earning her undergraduate degree at the University of Kentucky. Now, as an associate professor of sculpture at the University of North Florida, she works hard to balance her academic career with her own artistic endeavors. Because of this, there is no such thing as a typical workday for Hager. She says she tries to start every day with a morning swim, but after that, her to-do list can vary wildly. Working in sculpture, she says, has its own unique set of challenges and obstacles. Creating the art is just one piece of the puzzle.
“The biggest challenge as a sculptor is always logistics,” Hager said. “Coordinating efforts to move things, coordinating efforts to install things with cranes, and all the materials and supplies.”
The steel giraffe, for instance, was transported to the zoo in two separate pieces in order to clear roadway signs and traffic lights. Hager needed to design the sculpture in a way that allowed the giraffe’s head to be removed at thirteen feet. Then, with the help of the zoo, she was able to use a low-lying trailer to make sure both pieces safely reached their destination, where they were put back together.
But Hager still appreciates these problem-solving opportunities that her career allows her. Each sculpture poses its own set of challenges, she says, which provides countless new experiences. Additionally, she enjoys helping her students work through their own obstacles, as well as preparing them to face challenges on their own after they graduate. For her students to understand the logistics side of the art world, she requires them to fill out their own orders for their sculpture materials. She also teaches a summer class dedicating to helping artists learn how to turn their passion into a viable career.
“I teach a class in the summer called The Business of Art,” Hager said. “We talk about how to write grants. We talk about how to source materials. We talk about how to do your taxes for artists, because you’re operating as a small business. We talk about how to market yourself. All of these things are really important to becoming a professional artist, and so I try to give those skills to my students too.”
Hager puts in tremendous effort to help her students secure their own place in the art world, but that effort isn’t just for the students themselves. Hager knows that artists provide a vital service to the community and, without public art, an area’s culture and individuality could not flourish.
“Public art is so important. I think it makes a place come alive, and I’ve seen cities where public art has transformed communities that were blighted into communities that have lots of action,” she said. “Art has proven over and over again to be able to do that, and a lot of neighborhoods in New York City fit that model. It creates culture in your community and, really, if there’s no art, what’s the point?”
Hager and her husband, Lance, who is also a sculptor and adjunct professor at the University of North Florida, were two of six artists who recently transformed Downtown Jacksonville with their work. Lance created bike racks based on the four elements- earth, wind, water, and fire- while Hager’s two sculptural benches were installed underneath the Jacksonville Skyway monorail.
In addition to creating her own pieces for the community, Hager has pursued a number of efforts to bring in work from other artists, including her own students. UNF’s Seaside Sculpture Park in Jacksonville Beach features a collection of sculptures created by Hager’s sculpture students. The sculptures overlook the seashore and are changed out every year so that all students have a chance at displaying their work before they even graduate. And for those who might be wondering how the sculptures fared through the recent Hurricane Irma, Hager says they are standing as strong as ever.
“They stood up well!” Hager said. “We were really happy. That was the first thing we checked after our house. And the ones downtown were okay too.”
Now, Hager is helping to organize a Sculpture Walk in Jacksonville’s historic neighborhood Springfield, which she describes as a “national call to artists” who will have a chance to showcase their art in the neighborhood for two years. She received several grants to help bring in work from all over the country, and looks forward to seeing how the new exhibit will enhance the area.
In addition to her local public art, Hager has also had her work showcased nationally, in New Orleans and York, Pennsylvania, as well as internationally in Wales, Latvia, and Italy. She also has served on several committees for both Jacksonville’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Northeast Florida Sculptors Group.
Jenny Hager is not only an incredibly driven and influential artist in her own right, but she is also just as determined to lift up her fellow artists, and help provide platforms for those whose work she admires. Because working on such a large scale calls for multiple sets of hands, Hager says she feels that the sense of camaraderie in sculpture is like no other area of art, and that’s what draws her to it.
If there’s one thing Hager hopes for her students to take away from training with her, it’s the importance and value of teamwork.
“I try to teach them to play well with others,” she said. “We foster an environment here where everyone helps each other out, so I hope that they take that and pay it forward. I hope they share their knowledge and their skills with other people after they graduate.”