For Nancy Schön the world is an expansive museum to explore. Schön, who is best known for sculpting the iconic “Make Way for Ducklings” installed in Boston’s Public Garden, includes the history of the sculpture in her new and fascinating memoir, “Make Way for Nancy: A Life in Public Art.”
“The Ducks,” as they are affectionately referred to all over the world, are based on the well-known children’s book of the same name by Robert McCloskey. They are about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their public debut with a host of local events in October and November. Beloved all these years, Schön writes that the ducklings have been “bootied in winter, bonnet-topped in spring, and dressed as ‘soxlings’ in Red Sox uniforms. They’ve been serenaded to, paraded to, selfied and ‘ducknapped.’”
Schön’s artistry has also been on display in her other works, including “The Tortoise and the Hare” installed in Copley Square near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, “Eeyore, Piglet, Winnie the Pooh and Hunny Pot,” which is installed at the Newton Free Library, and a “Dragon for Dorchester” installed in the Nonquit Street Green in Dorchester.
Schön points out that her sculptures almost always illustrate various life lessons. Mrs. Mallard from “Make Way for Ducklings” is about a promise kept and family values. Eeyore and company is about making the best of a situation. “The Tortoise and the Hare” is about the persistence of the tortoise—a metaphor for the Boston Marathon, particularly in the aftermath of the 2013 bombing.
Schön is also responsible for the skateboard park underneath the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston. In her book, she writes how she investigated stories of skateboarders who were defacing “The Tortoise and the Hare” with their various maneuvers. “I drove to the square and in anger started to yell at the kids,” she writes. “But I pulled back. They were nothing like the negative stereotypes I’d expected. These skaters were skillful athletes. … They were terrific.” Once Schön learned that skateboarding was illegal in Boston and many other Massachusetts towns, she was determined to help the young people she met find a safe and legal place to practice. The 40,000-square-foot Lynch Family Skate Park was dedicated in 2015, 20 years after Schön’s field trip to Copley Square.
In a recent wide-ranging conversation with her granddaughter Jackie Schon at The Paint Bar in Newtonville, the 89-year-old sculptor spoke about her life in art. Schön knew from an early age that she would be an artist. Her father was a florist in Newton, and Schön recalled that she was “always planting things. I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty. I was also born with the ability to put things together. Sculpture brings those two activities together. You could say that I’m an engineer without a license!”
Schön went on to graduate from Boston University and the Boston Museum School, where she apprenticed with a ceramicist. Like many artists, her career had peaks and valleys. When Schon asked her grandmother for her definition of success, she said: “Success is a funny thing. I don’t think of myself as famous. Success at this point in my life goes with the fact that I feel confident and I have a good sense of myself.”
But before she became the “Ducky Lady,” Schön’s self-styled apprenticeship involved a close and precise study of the Old Masters. She spent hours copying artists like Peter Paul Rubens before she went on to do a detailed study of McCloskey’s drawings at the Boston Library. “The ducks work because McCloskey was a fabulous draftsman,” noted Schön. “I could take those two-dimensional drawings and turn them into three dimensions because of his marvelous sketches. I spent many hours copying his drawings down to every little feather. I was determined to get inside his head.”
She also remembers the first time she showed prototypes of the sculptures to McCloskey. “The sculptures looked so big to him,” she said. “I had to show him the models I made outside. My studio happened to be adjacent to a day care, and when I brought out the sketches of the ducks, the children ran to them to pat them and play with them.”
The scene could not have been more perfect for Schön, who explicitly creates her work to be interactive. “I want people to touch [my sculptures],” she said. “My sculptures are free and available to everyone, no matter their background or their age. You can take pleasure from them any time of the day or night, every day of the year. It’s such a tactile experience.”
Four years after “Make Way for Ducklings” was installed, a replica of the sculpture traveled to Moscow. Their journey began with a photo-op in Boston with then First Lady Barbara Bush. Raisa Gorbachev, the first lady of Russia, happened to be with her, and Schön approached Mrs. Bush with the idea of giving the children of Russia a set of the ducks. The project was given the green light, and in the book Schön recalls the logistics of transporting 15 tons of material to Russia on a military plane that normally carried tanks.
After the success of her ducklings, Schön cast about for another project. “I started to look at fairytales and came upon Aesop’s Fables,” she said. Schön says she finds Aesop’s life story particularly interesting. “Here is a man who lived 2,500 years ago and was a slave,” she said. “He still has profound things to say to us today.” She selected 24 fables that were meaningful to her, bearing in mind that the number 24 also corresponds to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. “Look before you leap, honesty is the best policy—we’re still living by Aesop’s fables,” she said.
Throughout her poignant conversation with her grandmother, Jackie Schon—who is also an artist—said her grandmother has been her lifelong role model. “She has taught me so much about art and light,” she said. “She’s an extraordinary woman who completely made it on her own.”
Find more information about Nancy Schön and events celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Make Way for Ducklings” here.