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Lloyd Lillie, whose Boston sculptures depicted Red Auerbach and James Michael Curley, dies at 87

Mr. Lillie, with his sculpture of Thomas Jefferson.
Mr. Lillie, with his sculpture of Thomas Jefferson.Dani Baldassare

While seeking inspiration for his life-sized sculpture “The First Wave” at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which includes the five women who organized the first women’s rights convention, Lloyd Lillie turned as he often did to his closest companion and muse.

“I felt as if I were a choreographer designing a performance,” he said of the sculpture in a 1999 Globe interview. “I had my wife, Barbara, wear one of the long dresses to see how it is draped when she walked.”

Mr. Lillie, who was also renowned for sculptures of legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach and Boston’s former mayor James Michael Curley, was 87 when he died Feb. 23 of complications from pneumonia. Barbara Lillie died Saturday evening, at 85, of complications from dementia.

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Celtics fans celebrated with Mr. Lillie's statue of Red Auerbach in Quincy Marketplace after the Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals.
Celtics fans celebrated with Mr. Lillie's statue of Red Auerbach in Quincy Marketplace after the Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Sculpting, Mr. Lillie told the Globe several years ago, is akin to “watching an image emerge, watching it come to life, starting with wet clay and discovering an image that has a kind of presence to it.”

Among the life-sized images Mr. Lillie created were John Adams, Abigail Adams, and John Quincy Adams; Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus; and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whom he depicted among the figures at the Women’s Rights park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and in a bust that has been part of the collection of the Museum of African American History in Boston.

Mr. Lillie, a longtime Boston University professor, wanted to show two sides of Curley, so he crafted two sculptures of him near Faneuil Hall — as an orator, and sitting casually on a park bench.

“One image, a standing figure, is the James Michael Curley known to other politicians, city and state officials, bankers, contractors and businessmen,” Mr. Lillie told the Globe in 1980. “The opposing image is the Curley known to his constituents and supporters, the mostly poor working class for whom Curley always has time, a sympathetic ear, and an open wallet.”

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Globe critic Christine Temin praised Mr. Lillie’s “Falling Couple” sculpture, which was part of a 1980 group show in Cambridge.

She described it as “a large and shallow bronze bowl hung on the wall, with two spindly figures poised on the rim. As in time-lapse photography, there are several versions of the unlucky couple, each smaller and fainter than the ones before, until finally the pair blends into the surface of the bowl. Time, motion, and sound are effectively suggested by the work: You can almost hear the echo of the fall into the canyon.”

In 1999, the National Academy of Design presented Mr. Lillie with an award for “Figure Stretching,” a 3-foot bronze statue of a woman. His work was also honored by the National Sculpture Society.

His gift for depicting movement owed much to the careful attention he paid to those from whom he drew inspiration, and to his willingness to recognize that real life could be more interesting than the plans he had made.

“Very often I have found that when a model is on ‘break’ from a specific pose, she will move through gestures that have movement and dynamics that are far more exciting than the original posed position,” he wrote in an exhibition catalog. “I think it is most important to work with a sense of discovery. The ‘Figure Stretching’ came from just this observation when the model was on break.”

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Born in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 1932, Lloyd Lillie grew up in Takoma Park, Md.

His father, surveyor Alfred Lillie, and his mother, Thelma Folsom, divorced, and for a while Mr. Lillie lived with his father and grandparents. Mr. Lillie’s stepmother was Erma Scanlan, a bank teller.

“Growing up with my grandparents, they had me drawing by the age of 5,” he said in 2014 for a publication at the Linden Ponds retirement community in Hingham, where he had lived in recent years. “As I grew up, I was encouraged to do more with art by my teachers and eventually got my first job as a sculptor at age 20. I still love sculpting to this very day.”

His grandmother encouraged his endeavors in art and music, including learning piano, which became a lifelong love.

Mr. Lillie told the Globe that after high school, he initially studied at what is now the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in Washington, while also performing as a jazz musician in clubs.

He served in the Army, during the Korean War, performing in the Army Band and in a jazz ensemble on instruments including the accordion and melodica, both of which have keyboards, and the piano.

While on leave, he met Barbara Bailey at a dance on the boardwalk in Cape May, N.J., where their families vacationed.

They married in 1954 and had three children. Along with posing for his sculptures, Barbara managed his business affairs and graduated from Boston University on the same day as their daughter, Nina Lillie LeDoyt of Newton, and their son, Warren, who died in 2012.

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During gatherings at their longtime Newton home, Barbara would play snare drum with brushes while her husband performed songs on the piano.

“He was very charismatic,” Nina said.

Mr. Lillie’s studio was in the carriage house behind the family’s home and he returned to the main house during breaks from work. “All our friends knew him and really liked him and appreciated him,” Nina added.

“He really made us feel loved and important,” she said. “He was very supportive of everything we tried to do.”

Mr. Lillie graduated from the Museum School and also studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy.

For more than three decades, he taught at Boston University, including more than 20 as a professor of art, before retiring as a professor emeritus.

Afterward, he kept sculpting and playing piano while at Linden Ponds, even for several years since cancer surgery left him with a feeding tube, no longer able to eat.

For him, the work was sustaining.

“Today’s a good day,” he told The Enterprise of Brockton in 2014 as he worked on a sculpture, “so I’d say I have 20 left in me.”

In addition to his daughter Nina, Mr. Lillie leaves another daughter, Lisa Lillie Taylor of Newton, and three granddaughters.

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The family has held a private service for Mr. Lillie and will announce a celebration of his life and work.

Mr. Lillie was fond of creating sculptures that invited people to interact with his art. At the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, visitors can walk among the life-sized statues.

Legendary Boston City Councilor Dapper O'Neil,  with 
 Mr. Lillie's statue of O'Neil's idol, James Michael Curley.
Legendary Boston City Councilor Dapper O'Neil, with Mr. Lillie's statue of O'Neil's idol, James Michael Curley.HANDOUT/T.C FITZGERALD/file/1995

And with the statue of Curley on a park bench, “people can sit beside him and talk to him and tell him their troubles,” Mr. Lillie told the Enterprise.

Along with encouraging his wife, father, and son to pose as models, he once drew inspiration from two of his granddaughters for a statue he prepared for a library of two children reading a book, side by side.

“I saw the older one showing the younger one her favorite book, and I asked them if they would like to look at this together for a photograph,” he told the Globe in 1999. “They were delighted.”

Thomas Menino posed with the second of Mr. Lillie's statues of James Michael Curley at Faneuil Hall after the mayor ended a 60-year run of Irish mayors in Boston.
Thomas Menino posed with the second of Mr. Lillie's statues of James Michael Curley at Faneuil Hall after the mayor ended a 60-year run of Irish mayors in Boston.John Tlumacki/Globe staff/file/1996

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.