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Sculptor Nancy Schön makes more than just ducklings

Bachrach Photography

WHO

Nancy Schön

WHAT

The Newton sculptor, 83, is best known for her bronze “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture in the Boston Public Garden. But she has a distinguished body of other work, too, much of it representations of human and animal figures. About six months ago, the Kolbo Fine Judaica Gallery in Brookline invited her to exhibit a few brass pieces she made years ago in Israel. “Before I knew it, I was going into cabinets and into closets and up to the third floor and all of a sudden it became a retrospective,” said Schön. “Big pieces, small pieces, a fabulous show!” The show runs until Sunday, and she will be in the gallery from 2-5 p.m. that day.

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Q. How long have you been sculpting?

A. As long as I can really remember. I fell in love with Michelangelo when I was 10.

Q. How unusual was it, at that time, for a woman to be a sculptor?
A. Very unusual. I applied to so many group shows and got rejected. I blamed it on being female. However, my parents gave me free rein of the cellar in Newton Center and never bothered me when I was filthy and casting in plaster. I always have been very good with my hands and know how to put things together without directions, and I’m mechanical and use all sorts of tools. I’m a good putter-together-er. I think of myself as an engineer without a license.

Q. What was your career path?

A. I went to BU and dropped out of college. I don’t think you want to go there. I went to the Museum School [Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts] and took a course in sculpture. I love what happens when I see what is erupting in my hands in clay.

‘I love what I do with a passion. . . . When I go in that studio I can throw off all that other stuff. I’ve never said this before but I think artists are a happy people.’

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Q. Can we talk about your ducklings?

A. Please don’t ask me how they happened. Everybody asks me that. It’s on my website.

Q. I‘m crossing it off my list. Can we talk about the ducklings in Moscow?

A. In 1990, Barbara Bush gave the commencement speech at Wellesley, and Mrs. [Raisa] Gorbachev was with her. I was told Mrs. Gorbachev loved the ducks . . . I thought, let’s see if Mrs. Bush would like to give Mrs. Gorbachev the ducks, and wrote her a letter. Her chief of staff called me and we started a dialogue. That’s how it happened. I went to Moscow on a C-5 [military cargo transport] plane with 15 tons of materials. The men who put the ducks in the Boston Public Garden also came. I insisted on taking cobblestones from Boston, so that the ones in Moscow would be the same as the ones in Boston. Except that we ran out of cobblestone and had to use black basalt. They’re in the Novodevichy Park in Moscow. These ducklings have had such a life. You have no idea.

Q. Did you ever think this would happen?

A. Never in my life. I also think I would never be as well known if it weren’t for the ducklings. On the other hand, one does rise to the occasion, and the fact that I was rejected by so many shows in my 20s and 30s may have been a stimulus for going on.

Q. Is it unusual to be sculpting in one’s 8os?

A. Many famous artists lived to be in their old age. Think about Leonardo or Michelangelo. I love what I do with a passion. I am lucky that I have 11 grandchildren and lots of love and good stuff in my life. I’ve had plenty of tragedy too, but when I go in that studio I can throw off all that other stuff. I’ve never said this before but I think artists are a happy people.

Q. What other works are you especially proud of?
A. I did a huge sundial at Mass. General Hospital to honor the nursing profession. . . . I’m very proud of the raccoons I did that are in Nashville. I did a dancing girl in Israel. I did dragons in Dorchester. Lots of kids can get on that — he is 8 feet long. I’m very proud of everything, I guess. I made a promise to [“Make Way for Ducklings” author] Robert McCloskey that I would never reproduce the ducklings — except for Moscow, because he felt that was for children and for a good purpose. But keeping that promise turned out to be the most wonderful thing because I had to keep making other sculptures. It was like casting my bread upon the waters, and it came back to me.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. A series of 24 sculptures based on Aesop’s Fables. I cherry-picked the ones I thought were really wows, like “Look before you leap” and “Necessity is the mother of invention.” To think these go back 2,500 years and he wrote 656 fables, and that in 2012 we are still using his morals to live by. I plan on sending them to museums all over the world. It’s probably the most important and profound thing I will do in my lifetime.

Kolbo Fine Judaica, 437 Harvard St., Brookline. 800-238-8743, www.kolbo.com. Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.
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