sculptures are made of blue steel. But they are rooted in red
LaVergne, a professor of art at Western Michigan University,
creates large works out of fabricated metal. But he got his start
as a boy by molding horses and cows out of clay on his father's
farm in rural Louisiana.
LaVergne, 54, now lives outside of Paw Paw. Nevertheless, he
still feels attached to the French Creole culture he was born
into and to the childhood experiences that shaped his life.
His current studio is located in the Knollwood Building, a former
primary-school building on the edge of campus. LaVergne likes
the rambling structure for its isolation—he's one of only
two full-time faculty in the building and has been located there
for about seven years. As he works on his latest piece, a writhing
shape about five feet long, the sculptor wears a tan workshirt
pitted with black pinprick holes made by flying sparks. His work
boots have steel flaps that reach from the tongue to the steel
toes, to protect his feet from chunks of metal that may fall
"It's saved me many times," he says.
Indeed, LaVergne's feet seem to have been steered to his current
station in life by a guiding influence that took him out of the
most humble of origins imaginable in America.
These days, he is busy happily creating. The clutter of the studio
includes a leather hide hung over a ceiling pipe to dry—a
material his father often made use of in saddles and harness
straps and which LaVergne occasionally incorporates.
There's also a black-and-white poster showing Dexter Gordon taking
a cigarette break as he cradles his clarinet. LaVergne sees an
analogy between jazz music and the rounded shapes he plies. His
full-scale works are not merely blowups of the preliminary models.
Instead, the models merely form starting points for his improvisa-tion-hy-fabrication.
"I cut the metal in panels, and I build with
it," he says. "Because
of that, I'm able to pretty much go into any direction I want.
I try to be as spontaneous as possible and react to it as it
"If something feels right, I try to continue
that, pretty much like a blues player or a jazz player would
Such free-form composition, however, can play havoc with arts
committees who have commissioned LaVergne to execute a concept
they have agreed to based on his model.
"I start a thing, and then as I go I'll see
ways to get better as an artist," he says. "But then
that may change the concept of what the committee thought I was
going to do."
This frequently gets him into trouble with civic leaders whose
tastes run toward the conventional, LaVergne notes, chuckling.
"I always like to build the works and then let them decide
if they want them or not," he says. "That's really
the best way. I am not a technician. I'm into the possibility
evolving with a piece. Really, I'm concerned with those issues
that are somewhat esoteric and intangible."
And governmental committees are not strong on esotericism and
intangibility. LaVergne points at the serpentine piece he's currently
working on and says he doesn't know how close it is to its final
"No telling where this piece is going to go," he says. "But
I'm having a lot of fun."
Yes, LaVergne is a free spirit who likes to conjure a free association
of ideas with his forms. But he's also a hard worker: He's at
his studio by eight each morning, sculpting — or fabricating,
as he would say.
His latest creation, a seven-foot-tall statue of Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr., is being done for a city park bearing King's name in
Shreveport, La. The statue has Dr. King holding the hands of
a young black woman and a young white man, who in turn are holding
their free hands outstretched, as if ready to join with others.
LaVergne intends the statue to show how Dr. King's concerns of
peace, unity and education transcended race and gender.
He admires the statue of Dr. King just north of Kalamazoo's downtown
as one of the finest realistic sculptures of the man that he
has seen. But realism wasn't one of LaVergne's concerns. He wanted
to portray the power of Dr. King's message—as an energy
source that others could plug into to become better, bolder,
and more dynamic.
So in making the final version, sure enough, LaVergne departed
from the model. He found himself abstracting Dr. King's arms,
which turn into a book and other tools of learning before they
attach to his torso.
"His body starts to change," LaVergne says. "Instead
of just having arms holding books, his arm becomes the book,
and then you might see a microscope. So all of these things make
up the individual joints of his body. That concept kind of scared
"And you see, that was where the controversy came in," he
says. "They (the arts committee) said, 'But this doesn't
look like Dr. King.'"
"No, but does it feel like him?" LaVergne replied. "Are
those ideas about what he was about?"
" Well, yes, but ..."
So the politicians debated putting the statue in a less visible
location. They procrastinated until the public began clamoring
to see the work so it could decide for itself, and, as a result,
the sculpture was installed on Nov. 3. If all goes well, it could
be dedicated early next year.
"They're going to let people see it gradually, without the
says. "Then, if it's well-received — and I anticipate
it will he — they'll have an unveiling or dedication. It's
going to take a few months — people who hate it have to
make their peace with it."
"I've had pieces rejected before," he says. "If
it doesn't survive the initial couple of months, then you have
to take it
Although the scrutiny that comes with public commissions is painful,
LaVergne says he's not about to conform to expectations.
"Some people don't like to have their lives changed by public
art," he says. "All of those fears have to be worked
out, and after they can see it as a sculpture, people begin to
love it, because they are able to see the sculpture as a sculpture,
instead of seeing it with the fears that they brought.
"I believe that art is supposed to confront us, because
it's going to make us think in different ways. This is what the
does that I'm so excited about."
King's goal of education was crucial to LaVergne's own destiny,
although his school years were made difficult because he spoke
a French patois, not English — there were no language specialists
in the schools then — and because of a childhood bout with
One of 11 children of parents who were sharecroppers, LaVergne's
early life, although poor, was filled with artistic examples.
He attended school at Basile, on the border of Evangeline and
Acadia parishes. The prinicipal there spotted the talent he and
his siblings possessed and asked them to work on special projects
like float decorations.
There was no television in that area of Louisiana in the early 1950s.
Instead, on rainy days when LaVergne and his siblings couldn't work the fields
and cotton, they formed tilings from clay they had dug up on their farm.
"It was wonderful stuff," LaVergne says. "We would
amuse ourselves, model the animals. My brother was really good at it; he could
LaVergne's father made all sorts things, but with a purpose: Being poor he often
could not afford to buy parts tools, so he fashioned replacements i of wood and
leather — handles, whips harnesses, even saddles.
When he needed a metal piece, sometimes sent LaVergne on the ho to
shop in town, about a dozen miles away.
"You'd go down there, and son times the guy wasn't quite finished," says. "So
you'd have to wait around. He'd forge, put the metal in the fire, u it would
get red, and he'd sharpen l blades. As a kid, I guess that made impression on
me. You'd watch, and would stick with you, years later."
In time, LaVergne did turn metal — and to the figures he was
familiar with molding as a child. His first large figurative sculpture was of
a horse a carriage
pulling Mardi Gras musicians a sight from former days in that region. Done independently,
it now stands the state capital grounds in Bat Rouge.
But at first, he intended to sculpt just a horse.
"Then, fortunately, the horse looked lonesome, so I added the
cart and the figures," he says. "Eventually, I had
the feeling of a form that was completed."
The statue is painted black to preserve the metal. Its forms
are smooth and rounded, but now LaVergne leaves the bumpy welds
on his finished work, to show the process of forming it.
His own childhood bears a few such scars.
When La Vergne was 12, he contracted tuberculosis.
The cure at that time was to quarantine patients in a hospital
stayed there a year. His first night in the infirmary he was
awoken by the death throes of the old man in the bed next to
The men in the ward played cards, but LaVergne wasn't any good
at gambling. To pass the hours, he turned to his familiar childhood
amusement, fashioning things in clay.
When he returned to school, his friends had passed him by, leaving
him feeling isolated among his younger classmates. It reinforced
his reliance on his own company.
I developed a way of being alone a lot," he says, "because
I knew how to do that, and that was a way of protecting your
sanity. So you find some way to spend your time. And I was doing
little art pieces at the time."
The traumatic experience of his early illness, along with several
deaths in his family, have influenced his choice of medium, he
There was a need to go into permanent, strong, resistant kinds
of materials," he says. "I got TB, my sister died of
lupus, my brother died of sickle cell, so in my own mind, I'm
making things that are going to withstand all of this. Viruses
are not going to survive steel and bronze."
Because of the sense of loss associated with attending so many
funerals, LaVergne suspects he wanted something durable. He rejected
impermanent mediums such as wood and clay, although he realizes
nothing is permanent.
I tried stone, but that was too time-consuming — it takes
you a year to do a piece out of stone. So metal seemed to he
the logical option, because you could weld the pieces and it
could happen quickly."
Over time, he developed the technique he calls fabricating. In
tills process, the sculpture is not cast but rather is built
by laying piece upon piece.
It's not dissimilar to the art his mother practiced. Although
she had no training in art, she possessed a keen sense of color,
he says, and made beautifully colored quilts from patches she
rescued from old shirts or grain bags.
"Some of the quilts she made were wonderful, abstract expressionist
stuff," LaVergne says. "There are all kinds of cylinder
shapes, reds and greens and yellows. She was able to put patches
in a certain way to look good.
I would ask her sometimes, 'Why did you put this one there?'
She wasn't intellectually aware of it, necessarily, but there
was a need there — it felt right, because of the color
harmony or color vocabulary she was working with. And each quilt
had its own identity."
Other influences are submerged in his work — for instance,
faith healing, an oral tradition of medicinal practices passed
down through his family and stemming from Creole voodooism. Not
that he messes with potions—he confesses that he's somewhat
fearful of the supernatural anyway — but he suspects that
somehow he feeds on that culture.
"There are still some things I have to process yet," he says. "But
I think that, if there is a connection to do with a lot of that,
then I'm really closer to my ancestors than I've ever been."
Ironically, LaVergne was among the first in his family to go
to college. Because of his illness, he was eligible for what
the state of Louisiana called a Vocational Rehabilitation Program.
"That meant if you had a major illness, the state would pay to
educate you so you could become useful to the community," he
says. Many of his brothers, frustrated at falling behind their
peers because of the language barrier, had quit school. LaVergne's
art sustained him. His principal brought the state program to
his attention, suggested he major in art, and wrote a letter
of recommendation for him to Southern University in Baton Rouge,
a traditionally black institution affiliated with Louisiana State
From there, LaVergne won an art scholarship to the University
of California at Berkeley, where he earned master of arts and
master of fine arts degrees, graduating with honors in the early
Berkeley was where he began working with metals. He started out
like other students who would design a work on paper using different
parts that formed geometrical shapes, then would put it together
almost by blueprint.
"When I was in grad school, most people there were using found
parts," he says. "You would do assemblages: You'd get
a round piece, you'd get a square piece, and you'd do a nice
"After awhile, my pieces began to look like other people's work.
When you use geometries, there's only so many equations you can
come up with before you start repeating yourself. To some degree,
it's going to look like the piece you did the last time."
That's when LaVergne began to develop a vocabulary of hard and
soft forms, using a rough textural appearance without attempting
an exact physical replication.
"Gradually my planes began to look like arms and legs and feet,
and then I began to see figures emerge from them," he says.
So despite all the higher education, LaVergne's journey has really
been about self-discovery, not formal processes or techniques.
And that's what has connected him to his ancestors, just as the
figures gradually found their way out of his geometric works.
When you go to college, you learn all this new knowledge, but
you're still basically yourself," he says. "You still
have to learn about you. That new stuff is good, technical stuff,
but as an artist, you still have to talk about yourself."
He's lucky, he says, in that his early difficult circumstances,
such as rural poverty or a serious, confining illness, supplied
him with material.
"I have a mosaic of experiences," he says. "I have a
wealth of stuff to talk about."
And he'll continue to let his blow torch and his welder do his
talking on a big scale.
"The older I get, the more I realize that everything I do is part
of a natural evolution," he says. "And anything I learn,
actually going back and harvesting all of those feelings and
"That's the true way to make art — for me, anyway."