The sprawling sculpture park at the Lay Center outside Louisiana now features a new set of sculptures rooted in the area’s history.
The backers of “Westward Journey” and its creator, Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera, gathered Sunday to dedicate the piece of art.
The sculpture depicts a group of pioneers in the process of fording a body of water. At the lead of the group is a horseman standing alone on an outcropping. Behind him, a family and a collection of animals gather around a covered wagon whose driver is struggling for control. Perched on a peninsula, they appear to have just emerged from the lake that sits behind them. On the other side of the lake, two more horsemen prepare to make their way across.
Lou Garr, the director of the Lay Foundation and a friend of Henry Lay, who drove the creation of the sculpture park on his property in Pike County, said “Westward Journey” represented another step in Lay’s plans for the park.
A few months before he died, Lay commissioned a sculpture of three women in traditional Chinese dress on an island on the Lay Center’s lake from the Chinese sculptor Bing Chang. The peninsula jutting into the lake which now accommodates the heart of “Westward Journey” was still bare, but, according to Garr, Lay had a distinct idea what he would like to see on the spot.
“In Henry’s view, three sisters represented the eastern culture of the world, and what he wanted for the peninsula to the west was something “Americana.” I’m proud to stand here today with the firm feeling that western journey has provided something truly Americana, and that we are now here together, all fulfilling a part of Henry’s twenty-year-old dream and vision.”
It was inspired by Pike County’s role as the first stop for many pioneers on the Sante Fe trail, which led them from Missouri to the southwest.
An installation at the trailhead means that Rivera will have pieces on either end of the Sante Fe Trail. He won a competition in Sante Fe in 2003 to build a sculpture commemorating its end-point. That sculpture, “Journey’s End,” attracted the attention of Garr in 2004, Rivera said.
“It took us nine to ten years to see what you have now. We were all hoping for this,” Rivera said, referring to the completed sculpture.
“It was such a pleasure, doing this piece,” Rivera said. “It all had to be in action. All of these pieces, even if they’re standing, they have action.” Rivera used supporters of the project as models for the various figures, including himself, Garr and Lay. He also wanted to feature people from the area: the completed sculpture features David and Vickie Cadwallader of Louisiana and their children, Rivera said.
The placement of the statue on the peninsula posed an unexpected problem: Jack Strong, an engineer friend of Garr, accompanied him on an early survey of the site. After observing the edges of the peninsula, Strong took Garr aside and warned him that the peninsula would not be able to support the the statue in the long term.
“In fact, he said ‘I would venture to guess that after four to five years the driver of the covered wagon will not be looking at the ground — he will be looking at the water. Of course, I didn’t believe him,” Garr said.
But his diagnosis proved to be correct. It took substantial work to reinforce the peninsula — but on the other end of those efforts, Garr said, is sculpture that should be able to stand on solid ground for more than 100 years.
“The Louisiana area also supplied nine individuals without whom this project would not have been successful,” Garr added. He gave credit to Brett Penrod and Leeroy Blackwell, Fred Turner, Jerry Mahanihan, Curtis Love and his son’s Nathan and Jeffrey Love, and the brothers Eddie and Mike Love for help with different parts of the project.
The Foundation hopes the new sculpture will have a broader impact on the communities that surround it.
“We are hopeful that this piece will give the sculpture park the attention needed to become a major tourist attraction for visitors to our area, as well as a source of great enjoyment for locals for many years to come,” Lay Foundation Secretary Janet Couch wrote in an email.
The 350-acre Lay Center for Education and the Arts is an outpost of St. Louis University’s arts programming in Pike County, created through a donation to the University in 1997. SLU President Fred Pestello related the experience of the university, the center, and the sculpture in his remarks during the dedication.
“Through his hands [Lay] created something moving, that will be here for generations, The process of creating art, this sculpture, and St. Louis University share a common experience: a pioneering spirit. The spirit that Henry Lay had when he envisioned what would at one time been woods and a farm, turning it into what it is today.”