Nancy Schon’s sprawling studio, a converted, expansive garage with 16-foot ceilings, is enough to make a visitor dizzy. Huge color photos of her most famous pieces decorate the walls (including the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculptures in the Boston Public Garden and Moscow), three large sculptures in progress occupy the middle of the room, and smaller sculptures and maquettes (scaled miniatures) neatly line shelves and countertops.
Then, there’s her house. She has lived in the 100-plus-year-old Victorian in West Newton since 1966 and raised four children there, now all adults with families of their own. (She has nine grandchildren.) From the outside, it could be anyone’s house but for a large sculpture beside the front door called “Generations” inspired by the sight of her mother-in-law, husband, and son emerging from a walk in the woods.
Each room in her home showcases her prolific career: a maquette of her “Tortoise and the Hare” sculpture installed in 1994 in Copley Square for the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon; a life-size raccoon from “Raccoons and the Magic Horseshoes” in a Tennessee park; a piece called “Waiting” that is about, yes, waiting. In fact, she explains, all of her sculptures have symbolic meaning, and many of the mid-sized ones are displayed on turntables, allowing a complete view.
“My home is my showcase. There’s no better place to show sculpture than a house,” says Schon, 72, her shock of silver-white hair framing youthful good looks.
The jeans and sweatshirt she wears under a sculptor’s apron can’t conceal how fit she is, despite the pacemaker she’s had for “about” seven years.
“My heart is healthy,” she says. “It’s an electrical problem. If I could take a piece of sandpaper and make the connections better, I wouldn’t have this problem. It has not impinged on my lifestyle; I never think about it and hardly know I have it.”
Schon plays tennis two or three days each week (“make sure you say `singles’ “), and takes her German shepherd, Gustav Mahler, for brisk walks. During the summer, she swims twice daily in her pool. “Exercise is an extremely powerful part of my life,” she says. “It’s kept my mind and body in good shape.”
The sculptor’s husband of 45 years, Donald, an MIT professor, died three years ago. While his illness and death slowed her down for a while, Schon’s upbeat personality had her moving fast again before long. She switches excitedly from topic to topic as quickly as she cranks out sculptures.
She delights in sharing “one of the most moving moments” of her life: traveling with two first ladies, Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev, when the US government presented her ducklings to Russia in 1991. She also speaks animatedly about the tea Mrs. Bush then hosted in her honor at The White House. (“Having a tea in The White House ain’t bad.”) She also points enthusiastically to a photo of her and Mikhail Gorbachev – “my buddy,” she says – clinking glasses last September at a rededication of the ducklings and the replacement of Mrs. Mallard and three ducklings that had been vandalized.
Schon is now completing a sculpture commissioned by the Hamilton, Ohio, Community Foundation to honor and dedicate a park to the now-elderly Robert McCloskey, author of “Make Way for Ducklings.”
“I love what I do; it gives me joy and I love that I make a lot of people very happy with my work,” she says. “I’m probably one of the luckiest sculptors around. I’ve had such an interesting, varied life in this career. So many wonderful things happen to me; I’m very fortunate.