Finding hope

After the election, Nancy Schön was blue. When faced with sadness, what’s a sculptor to do? She fashions a piece that acknowledges her feelings, yet points toward hope.

The mother dove has a tear in her eye. But her fledgling is rising from a lilac branch that already has buds on it. Laurel leaves lie nearby. This small sculpture, still in wax, shows how an artist conceives of a project, decides how big it will be, plays with the image until it feels right and finally can send it off to the Chelsea foundry to be cast in bronze. Nancy is still playing with the image, so the doves are not finished. But the project is making her feel better.

Nancy, of course, is the renowned sculptor who turned Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings mallards into the bronze statues in the Boston Public Garden. (Her last name is pronounced “Shern.”) Children have been playing on the ducks, and their parents have been taking photographs of those children on the ducks, for almost 30 years.

This remarkable woman showed me around her house and studio the other day so I could tell some of her story.

Nancy lives in a section of Newton that has big, early 20th-century, gorgeous houses. Her pleasant home is filled with the paintings and sculpture of other artists, as well as her own art.

“I’ve always wanted to pursue my love of sculpture, help others and earn a living,” she said. That’s what she is doing.

Nancy is slender and good looking, taking after her mother, who was a beauty herself. She is strong and agile, which comes in handy when she makes such big pieces as a lifesize pig, bear or giraffe. Seven months of the year she swims a quarter of a mile daily in her outdoor pool, which takes up most of her back yard. She works every day in her spacious studio behind the swimming pool, using materials and tools familiar to carpenters, jewelers and plumbers—Styrofoam, steel netting, drywall nails, pipes, scrapers, magnifying glasses, clay, wax, plaster, marble, turntables, wire. She spends lots of time at lumber yards. She follows the Red Sox, goes to symphony and likes places that offer valet parking.

Did I mention that she is 88 years old? She seems at least 25 years younger.

Nancy grew up in Newton in a loving family. Her father ran Harry Quint Florist in the Back Bay, and her mother delivered the flowers. From an early age Nancy was sculpting. “I intuitively knew how things go together,” she said.

She trained at the Museum School, married philosopher, professor and author Donald Schön and had four children, all happy and healthy. Her early sculptures featured many mothers and children. She created images of her husband and children walking in the woods. She made giraffes because Donald was six feet four and told her he sometimes felt like a giraffe. She made sculptures of people waiting, of people climbing. She watched people looking at sculpture and had an insight. “Children patted the cat or stroked the donkey, but paid no attention to the people sculptures,” she said.

Her public art commissions came fast after the ducklings statues were unveiled. First Lady Barbara Bush called on her to reprise Mrs. Mallard and her brood for the children of the then-Soviet Union. Mrs. Bush and Nancy went to Moscow to present the ducks to Raisa Gorbachev. Nancy made a tortoise and a hare for Copley Square to celebrate the Boston Marathon. She made a dragon with a heart at the end of its tail for the Nonquit Street Green in Dorchester. The city of Hamilton, Ohio, commissioned a statue of Lentil and his dog in honor of hometown boy Robert McCloskey, whose first book, Lentil, was believed to be autobiographical.

Nancy made prairie dogs for Oklahoma City to symbolize friendship. She created Eeyore, Piglet and Winnie-the-Pooh for the Newton Free Library. Her raccoons occupy a place of regard in Tennessee, another tortoise and hare live in Arkansas, and the bear Sal met in Blueberries for Sal stands in Boothbay Harbor, Maine’s botanical garden.

Nancy’s husband, Don, died about 20 years ago at age 67 so she had to create a new life for herself. That involved finishing a studio they had planned together and expanding her work with non-profit organizations. She partners with many groups doing good in the world to make works of art—desk-size sculptures, pins, even a zipper pull—to help them raise money or honor volunteers. She was a prime mover in building the skate park near the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge because she believed the kids skateboarding in Copley Square needed a better place to do their tricks. She created a series of small sculptures illustrating 24 of Aesop’s Fables that are still waiting for public home. She spends much time with her children, grandchildren and her first great-grandchild.

She is still working on the doves, trying to decide which composition will capture the hope she strives for. But in a world that contains so much bad news, so many bad actors, so much corruption and so many falsehoods, it is relieving to come upon a good story. It is what Nancy has made of her life that gives everyone hope that good lives can occur.

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