A MODERN-DAY RENAISSANCE WOMAN
By Leanna Haag
Arlyn Gagnon is not a typical 80-year-old woman. Though she sports two titanium hips and partially titanium knees, Gagnon proudly guides tours for the sculpture museum she owns and operates in her Rochester home. The museum—which Gagnon co-designed—displays original bronze sculptures created by her husband, the late Charles Gagnon, whose works also reside in collections in Japan, Belgium, England, Germany and various places in the United States. Gagnon actively participates in the Rochester art community through her involvement in the Heart of the City project and her continued publication of educational art materials for children.
Gagnon has dedicated her life to communicating with others through what she calls the “silent voice” of art. The first of her family to achieve a college degree, Gagnon pursued a career in art education; she attended graduate school at several universities across the country, including the Art Students’ League of New York City. Gagnon began her professional career by teaching college art.
In 1963, Gagnon accepted a dual position as assistant director and director of the children’s art program at the Rochester Art Center, where she met her future husband. After their marriage and a time in Italy, the couple settled back in Rochester, where they pioneered an art therapy program with Rochester State Hospital. The program flourished under their care for 28 years. Gagnon’s work there led her to aid other organizations dedicated to serving mentally handicapped children and alcoholic Catholic priests through rehabilitative art.
AMBASSADOR OF WORLD PEACE
Apart from her medical collaborations, Gagnon spent significant amounts of time in the studio creating artwork with her husband. “We worked together—as friends, as a team and as husband and wife,” says Gagnon.
Gagnon was involved with the creation of her husband’s most famous local piece: the Peace Fountain. Commissioned by the City of Rochester in 1987, the fountain resides in the Peace Plaza (named by Gagnon herself). It features a column of doves joined at the wings and is suspended over a reflective basin. Together, the birds represent the 50 states, the seven continents and the past, present and future. Gagnon explains that the 12-foot height of the sculpture works to literally and figuratively uplift the viewer’s gaze. The fountain, along with its sister sculpture in Germany, is dedicated to world peace and inspires cooperation between the elements of old and new.
ADVOCATE FOR THE FUTURE
According to Britton Jones, a Coen+Partners landscape architect developing the Heart of the City project, Gagnon expressed particular dissatisfaction with the restrictiveness of the fountain’s current layout. Jones says, “Especially in museum settings, you’re only meant to see (art and sculpture). You can’t touch them.” Gagnon desires something better for the Peace Fountain. Her belief in the power of tactile art inspired the design for a new column base and reflective pool that will enable visitors to touch the stone, water and bronze of the sculpture.
Gagnon herself speaks in glowing terms about the new design, calling it a “magnificent” and “beautiful blend of old and new.” The renovation, she believes, will accentuate the healing qualities of the fountain and the peace it offers to observers. The healing message of art is one that Gagnon hopes to communicate to the Rochester community at the 30th-birthday celebration of the Peace Fountain in the Peace Plaza in June, when Heart of the City designs will be revealed.
While she has engineered much of the Peace Fountain’s current success, Gagnon humbly recognizes those who have helped her reach her goals. “I am one woman, but I could not do any of this without the others in my life,” Gagnon says. Her gratitude echoes the self-transcending message that the Peace Fountain inspires and her own words confirm. “If any of us think beyond ourselves, those are good moments.”
Leanna Haag is an intern writer for Rochester Women magazine and is a senior at St. Mary’s University Minnesota.