Martha Legg Katz was 10 when her father gave her a box of clay and a modeling stand for her birthday, sparking a passion for sculpting that remained for the rest of her life.
“I was early on infected with what Camille Claudel, the sculptor who was Rodin’s lover and protegee, referred to as the ‘mud madness,’ ” Mrs. Katz told Wicked Local when a retrospective of her work was displayed in 2013 at the Weston Public Library.
It wasn’t until after she had four children and they were in school that she was able to devote herself to studying art.
Mrs. Katz, who was awarded a Copley Society of Art prize for sculpture in 1993 and had been an artist for almost five decades, died Sept. 14 in her Weston home of lung cancer. She was 85.
“A lot of my work has explored themes of mythology and religion,” Mrs. Katz said in the interview about her exhibition, “and I return again and again to the human face and form.”
The human body remained a touchstone in her work, which evolved from traditional figures made of clay and wood to “abstract and mysterious assemblages of wood, ceramic, metal, and found objects,” said her oldest daughter, Susan Katz Miller of Takoma Park, Md.
“I was very inspired as a young woman by how my mother seemed to transform herself from a suburban mom to a serious artist,” her daughter said.
Mrs. Katz won numerous art association awards in the Boston area, including a best of show in 1998 from the Concord Art association for “Cartouche,” a mysterious wood and ceramic sculpture.
“A powerful sculpture from all angles, evocative of totems yet original in conception,” wrote show juror Martha Richardson, who added that the piece was “beautifully carved” and that Mrs. Katz exhibited “sophisticated handling of materials and textures.”
When Mrs. Katz’s first grandchild was born, she designed a series of tiny ceramic boxes with fitted lids to hold umbilical cord stumps some mothers preserve. Mrs. Katz called her creations “Button Boxes.” A collector bought a work she made of framed hanging shelves holding the boxes.
Born in Binghamton, N.Y., Mrs. Katz was the daughter of A.C. Legg, who painted landscapes, and the former Geraldine Harris, who was a dietician. Mrs. Katz’s sister, Sallie Legg DeMartine, who died in 2012 at age 85, also was a painter.
In 1948, Mrs. Katz graduated from the Walnut Hill School in Natick, now called the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, and studied comparative religion in college. She graduated from Sweet Briar College, a women’s college in Virginia, in 1952, and moved to Boston, where she was a hospital social worker living on Beacon Hill.
On a cold, rainy night in 1953 at Logan International Airport, she met her future husband, William Katz, while vying for the last taxi.
“My story is I got the last cab and offered to share it with her. Her story was the other way around,” said her husband, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who was a chemical engineer before becoming an executive at a water purification company. They dated off and on for seven years and married in 1960.
Martha was Protestant, William is Jewish, and religious differences slowed their courtship, their daughter Susan wrote in her 2013 book, “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.”
Their interfaith love story made them pioneers in raising a family, Susan said. The couple raised their four children Jewish, and the children also participated in the Christian holiday traditions of their mother’s side.
Many years later, Susan learned that her mother had applied to Union Theological Seminary in New York after college. She decided not to go in part because the Episcopal Church did not ordain women then, Susan wrote.
While her children were young, Mrs. Katz’s artistic energy went into making art with them and supporting local arts programs, including a summer drama workshop for children.
She studied at the deCordova Museum School with artist Peter Paul Abate, who died in 1995.
After her husband retired, the couple enjoyed traveling across North America by train and taking cruises to Europe. Mrs. Katz was afraid to fly and was unable to conquer that fear despite taking an exposure therapy course in which participants took a flight together, according to her husband. Of their train trips, he noted: “It was a little bumpy at times but we got there.”
In addition to her husband, William, and daughter Susan, Mrs. Katz leaves her daughter Martha of Brooklyn, N.Y.; her two sons, David of St. Helena, Calif., and James of Greenwood Lake, N.Y.; and seven grandchildren.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate of Mrs. Katz’s life and art at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Weston Community Center.
Wendy Wrean, a friend and artist, noted that Mrs. Katz was also accomplished at drawing portraits, and Wrean recalled the joy of their long friendship. “We just had so much fun doing what we were doing,” Wrean said.
In the Weston neighborhood where Mrs. Katz lived, she and her husband were known as the heart of their neighborhood. They threw an annual holiday party for many years and welcomed newcomers. William played jazz piano and Mrs. Katz liked to sing and play ukulele. They both were also avid Red Sox fans.
Cathleen Daley, a neighbor and artist, was one of those newcomers in the neighborhood 30 years ago. “She really made you feel you belonged,” Daley said. “She was kind of a role model for me in more ways than as an artist; she was a humanitarian.”
Mrs. Katz had been diagnosed with cancer several times in her life. One day when she was in her 60s, she admired a fruit tree growing outside her studio. Half of the tree was dead while the other half still bloomed vigorously. “I feel like that tree,” she told Daley.
“She had this beautiful way of looking at the world to find her comfort and direction,” Daley said.