More Than 'The Duck Lady': Public Artist Nancy Schön's Many Sides

Download Audio

If you grew up in Boston, or visited as a child, there's a good chance you know the family of bronze Mallard ducks pattering through the city’s Public Garden. Sculptor Nancy Schön fashioned the figures after the fowl made famous in Robert McCloskey’s children’s book, “Make Way for Ducklings.” A career retrospective of Schön's work just opened at a somewhat surprising Brookline location.

The ducklings are wildly popular — so popular they've even been stolen a number of times.

“And they’re about to have their 25th birthday; a whole generation has gone by that knows them," Schön said. "And I have grandchildren who were born 25 years ago, and they remember when they were installed. It was a very rainy, rainy day — sort of a good day for ducks!”

And Schön's ducks have had a good life. First lady Barbara Bush even gave a duplicate set to Soviet first lady Raisa Gorbachev. But the public artist, now 83, also says fame has a price.

Nancy Schon, left, seen here with Larry Hardoon, owner of a 34-year-old gallery containing much of Schon's Judaica. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Nancy Schön, left, seen here with Larry Hardoon, owner of the Kolbo gallery. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“People know me because I’m ‘the duck lady,' " she said. “If I’m out anywhere — in any social occasion — nobody ever says, ‘This is Nancy Schön,’ period! They say, ‘This is Nancy Schön, she is the sculptor of "Make Way for Ducklings" in the Public Garden.’ So I think, ‘Is there anything else that I ever have done in my life?' ”

The answer is a resounding yes. Even so, the Newton sculptor admitted she sometimes feels like a fiddler with one string — the duck string. That explains why she met me at Kolbo, a Brookline gallery dedicated to Judaica.

“It’s fabulous,” she said, smiling. “I’m so excited.”

The airy room in Coolidge Corner is currently home to more than 60 works by Schön: a human-sized bronze giraffe, a replica of a raccoon sculpture now in a Tennessee park and a miniature version of the Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh in front of the Newton Free Library.

But there's also a collection of tiny human figures six to seven inches tall. Schön calls the set “Israeli Encounters.” She made them in the early '80s, during a year-long sabbatical in Jerusalem.

“So this was really our connection to Nancy,” said Dana Sobel, the art buyer at the Kolbo Fine Judaica Gallery. She’s known Schön as “the duck lady” for years, but now says she’s moved by the work the artist made in Israel.

“And spending time in Israel myself, I just feel like it evokes so many memories I have of everyday people on the streets,” Sobel said.


Schön made "18 Figures" in the 1980's while on a year-long sabbatical with her family in Jerusalem. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Schön made "18 Figures" in the 1980's while on a year-long sabbatical with her family in Jerusalem. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

While pulling together this show, Sobel was fascinated to learn about what goes into making even the tiniest of Schön’s sculptures. The artist created her 18 detailed people using wire molds cast in metal.

“There are people studying, there’s somebody fishing, there is somebody cleaning her home before the Sabbath,” Sobel described, “somebody reading a book, friends getting together and discussing things, it’s just a cross-section, a lot of what you would see.”

It’s a coup for this 34-year-old gallery to host an artist of Schön’s caliber. At first, the show was only going to focus on her Judaica, but then it grew into a full-blown retrospective. Schön said she went on a treasure hunt of sorts, sifting through closets to find iconic pieces from her past.

Brookline resident Julie Schur raced over here to check out the collection, saying it’s “amazing to have in the neighborhood.”

Schur remembers Schön’s whimsical works from when she was a kid.

“My mother grew up in Brookline, so this was sort of a second home,” Schur said. “I came to visit my grandmother here and always knew ‘Make Way for Ducklings,’ and ‘Blueberries for Sal,’ and all the great children’s books that are represented in Nancy’s work.”

But Schur knew nothing of Schön’s work from Israel.

“So I get to see a whole new side of what she does," Schur said. "And her much more serious work. “

Meaning more grown-up? Schur said she agreed, then asked, “But we all have both sides, right?"

Gallery owner and prominent Boston attorney Larry Hardoon is banking on that all-ages appeal. He and his wife Janet Fine bought the Judaica gallery a year ago with the goal of broadening its offerings and its audience. This show, if any, should be able to do that, Hardoon believes. Even during installation, he said Schön’s big giraffe was a magnet.

More pieces from Schön's newest work, "Israeli Encounters." (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
More pieces from Schön's newest work, "Israeli Encounters." (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

“When the movers brought it into the shop — I think these guys were 250 pounds and up — and each one of them got on the giraffe to have their picture taken,” Hardoon said.

And while Schön said she’s loath to be associated only with giraffes and ducks, she’s grateful and honored to have created them.

“People love the ducks, I must say," she said. "It means so much to me. So I am touched.”

This spritely artist said she’s nowhere near retiring. Right now she’s working on a series of 24 coffee table-sized sculptures based on "Aesop’s Fables."

Nancy Schön’s retrospective is on display now at the Kolbo Fine Judaica Gallery in Brookline. The artist will be at the store June 17 for a public opening reception.

This program aired on June 15, 2012.

Headshot of Andrea Shea

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live