NEWTON — Nancy Schön is best known as the sculptor who helped Robert McCloskey’s meandering mallards establish their home on Boston’s Public Garden three decades ago. Like “Make Way for Ducklings,” her public art often features pint-sized bronze animals that invite children to sit and play on them. Perhaps her most controversial work to date? “Myrtle the Turtle,” a Beacon Hill playground sculpture that was relocated to a no-play-zone after parents complained its sun-heated bronze was “burning” children.
Now at 91 years old, the mother of mallards has discovered she has something much more heated to say.
Her latest work is a #MeToo-themed sculpture that aims to solidify and memorialize the worldwide movement of women sharing their long-suppressed stories of sexual abuse and harassment.
In Schön’s hands, the #MeToo movement is represented by a rotating bronze globe atop a disk dotted with irregularly shaped placards of text on which the same message is spelled out in 106 different languages: “Me Too.” The words undulate outward from the globe, capturing the seismic potency of the movement, the ubiquity of women’s experience, the universality of the problem.
“Having followed the many heartbreaking stories over the years, I felt my own personal kinship with these women, yes, a deep personal empathy for their stories,” Schön explained in a pitch letter to potential funders for the sculpture. “Further, they showed a much bigger, more worldly picture of the historic degradation shown to women over the centuries.”
Schön has just started circulating the pitch and calling women and groups she thinks might be interested in collaborating on the project. It’s the start of a lengthy process she goes through to gauge interest and develop financial support and champions for a sculpture. This one would stand as a monument to women’s pain.
“I want people to know how powerful this movement is, how important it is for people to make this known,” said Schön. “One of the things I’ve worried about is that this movement, this #MeToo movement, is sort of a dot on history. It’s going to come and it’s going to go. It’s just sort of a blip. And I don’t want it to go,” Schön said, her voice rising.
She smiled. “I guess I’m yelling now.”
Yes, her, too.
As women around the world divulged their #MeToo stories over the past two years, Schön began reconsidering her life experiences with inappropriate men. There was the dry cleaner who brought deliveries to her home and who felt free to kiss her — a girl of just 10 or 11 — on the lips. A few years later, there was the piano teacher who interrupted his lesson with a surprise kiss. And there was the family doctor whose internal exams she accepted — even though she sensed, as an older teen, that they were unnecessary and inappropriate.
“Look at me, at this age. I never talked about it,” she said. “I was ashamed. It was just a very confusing thing, and you just sort of accepted this sort of thing. You knew it was bad. It was awful. It was traumatic.”
Only later in life did she discover that her sister had had the same experience with their family doctor; they never had the guts to ask their mother whether she had, too.
“It brings back a lot of stuff while we’re talking,” Schön said. “I can feel myself getting nervous.”
Schön, who does all her own marketing, has worked for years on siting public art, much of it in Boston. The process is often not smooth, even when the subjects of the sculpture are benign, as she recounts in her memoir, “Make Way for Nancy: A Life in Public Art.” Getting the ducklings installed in the Public Garden required not only the cooperation of McCloskey and the advocacy of an urban planner, Suzanne deMonchaux. It required the sponsorship of the Friends of the Public Garden, and the endorsements of the Boston Arts Commission, the Landmarks Commission, and the Parks and Recreation Department.
Getting her “Tortoise and Hare” sculpture installed near the end of the Boston Marathon course on Copley Square took seven years and the sponsorship of the Friends of Copley Square. She had originally envisioned them at the start of the race in Hopkinton and she’d also sought the sponsorship of the Boston Athletic Association, which runs the race. Neither panned out.
But fund-raising, site planning, meetings, and bureaucracy are requisite parts of the job, said Schön, who does not mind the negotiations and the “rough stuff.” Over the past year, she said, she sued a developer for reneging on payment for work already commissioned. Money often gets in the way, as do people’s differing aesthetic sensibilities.
“Public art is public art,” Schön acknowledged. “Everybody in the public isn’t nice and warm and fuzzy.”
Her #MeToo sculpture features a globe 12 inches in diameter but it could be scaled up as a major piece, she said.
Does she want it installed in the Boston area?
“I want it everywhere,” Schön said, noting the sculpture could be reproduced repeatedly at its current size. She has molds.
Her ideal location: outside the White House.
A mother of four best known for her children’s work, Schön was always most comfortable conveying lessons through animals — much like Aesop, whose fables she brought to symbolic life in bronze. A grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of three, she has a home gallery filled with bronze sculptures of real and mythical animals.
But she has inched toward the political in recent years, she said. When President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama left President Trump’s inauguration by helicopter in 2017, she said, she wept. Then she went to work, creating a sculpture called “hope,” depicting two doves and an olive branch. She has crafted a sculpture of a phoenix rising and one of two goats butting heads that, lately, she calls “Congress.”
“Now I’m doing things that I think are very important,” she said. “I also feel, at this age, I can say what I want, and there’s something very freeing.”