A sculpture of a pair of womanly legs displayed on private property in Sag Harbor Village’s historic district has put some residents on edge for the past eight years.Others have simply said, “Live and let live.”
Filmmakers Beatrice Alda and Jennifer Brooke decided to create a documentary to examine just what these disparate community reactions mean about the famous 16-foot fiberglass sculpture “Legs,” created by prominent painter, sculptor and filmmaker Larry Rivers.
According to Ms. Alda and Ms. Brooke, the sculpture is more than just a pair of legs that sparked an argument over what constitutes art. The filmmakers maintain that “Legs” can be used as a vehicle for examining what really matters to the Sag Harbor community.
“What makes people passionate enough to speak out about something? What is it that they are really opposing or supporting?” Ms. Brooke asked. “It became clear that the issue was not really about the structure. It was something much deeper than that.”
The 76-minute film, titled “Legs: A Big Issue in a Small Town,” is shot from the points of view of Sag Harbor’s diverse residents, and it highlights their desire to fit in and have a voice, the filmmakers said. In the process of making the documentary, prejudices concerning race, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation are exposed.
This “piece of public art” sparked a larger discussion about the nature of Sag Harbor, a small village where residents have “a real sense of pride and ownership in the community,” and also take issue with change, Ms. Alda said. “People want to see themselves reflected in their community, which is a real universal theme, and this is the kind of town that would have a 16-foot piece of legs up,” she added.
The sculpture drew attention to the fact Sag Harbor residents wanted to have a voice in the future of their community and be a part of something larger than themselves, as it spurred them to show up at zoning board meetings to voice their opinions. Ultimately, residents knew they could influence the village’s character. “Because Sag Harbor is very historical, the idea that if we start moving away from its historical cornerstone is an issue for people,” Ms. Alda said.
Ruth Vered and Janet Lehr installed “Legs” on their residential property without a building permit in 2008. A court battle with the village ensued. The most recent State Supreme Court decision, in November last year, found that “Legs” is in fact a structure, which means that it is subject to the same regulations as any other structure under the zoning code. Ms. Vered and Ms. Lehr intend to appeal that decision and, for now, “Legs” remains standing on their Madison Street property.
The attorney for Ms. Vered and Ms. Lehr, Stephen Grossman, has argued that the sculpture is a work of art and therefore the zoning code does not apply to it. However, the court’s November decision states that it is not within the authority of the zoning board to determine what is art. “That is a question philosophers from Plato to Arthur Danto have debated, and is best left to their province,” the decision reads.
Still, in 2012, the zoning board received more than 400 signatures that supported the sculpture as art.
“To me, it was not a big issue,” former Sag Harbor Village Mayor Brian Gilbride said this week. “I’m sure many people drive by every day and don’t even notice, and some people drive by and think it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Ms. Brooke and Ms. Alda both said the sculpture’s owners are a critical part of the film and appear throughout it. At one point during the movie, Ms. Vered and Ms. Lehr mention a blowup angel decoration that had been in the yard at the home across the street from theirs during the holidays that they found offensive. “They took a deep breath and learned to live with it,” Ms. Alda said, adding, “They are with the mindset that everyone should tolerate differences.”
In an interview last year, Ms. Vered said the judge’s most recent ruling was a violation of her right to free expression. “He should be supporting freedom of speech and the right of expression, and he is going against the American law, the American rules,” she said. “The freedom of expression is a part of our constitution, and he should know it better than I do.”
“I loved the film,” Ms. Lehr said on Monday, adding that Ms. Alda and Ms. Brooke “really made a wonderful documentary about a squabble gone wild, in the wonderful small town that the remarkable number of townspeople filmed cherish.”
The filmmakers were surprised that a fourth generation Sag Harbor resident they interviewed said of the debate, “Live and let live,” and had no problem with “Legs.” “You know you might assume that that person is very interested in preserving old, historical aspects of the town,” Ms. Alda said. Ms. Brooke echoed that thought and said the resident had viewed the placement of “Legs” on the property as a choice, just as a trailer or boat on a property is also a choice.
“It reveals a small town that has to live with each other,” Ms. Alda said of the deeper meaning of “Legs,” adding that the controversy surrounding the sculpture’s home represents “a microcosm of the world we live in—how do you tolerate your neighbors?”
Ms. Brooke emphasized that not only was everyone they interviewed local, a local artist and musician, Dan Rizzie, scored the film at his studio in East Hampton. “All of the cast are local and that is amazing that we had great people who are at our disposal who are ready to speak with us,” Ms. Brooke said.
While the film—a production of Forever Films Inc., founded in 2003 by Ms. Alda and Ms. Brooke—has not yet been released to the public, the directors are in the process of applying to film festivals. The documentary has had just two private screenings for friends, family and interview subjects.