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Make way for Russia: Sculptor known for duckling statue depicts the brutality of war on Ukraine

The boot features the fangs and snout of a Russian bear.  Nancy Schon, the 95-year-old sculptor best known for the iconic "Make Way for Ducklings" statue in the Boston Common, has created a new piece commenting on the horror in Ukraine. It depicts a Russian boot about to step down on a nightingale, the national bird of Ukraine. (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The boot features the fangs and snout of a Russian bear. Nancy Schon, the 95-year-old sculptor best known for the iconic "Make Way for Ducklings" statue in the Boston Common, has created a new piece commenting on the horror in Ukraine. It depicts a Russian boot about to step down on a nightingale, the national bird of Ukraine. (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Take a walk through the Boston Public Garden and you’ll likely waddle by a city landmark: The iconic “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture. Inspired by the 1941 book by Robert McCloskey of the same name, the statues of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings are sculptor Nancy Schön’s best-known work.

Aside from the ducklings and the 40,000-foot Boston skate park she ideated, earning her the nickname ‘Skateboard Granny,’ Schön’s work often takes on darker themes. Through her art, she’s addressed the #MeToo movement and the U.S. gun crisis, which she represented by a sculpture of an elephant with a gun as its trunk.

The “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture in Boston public garden by sculptor Nancy Schon (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

And her latest, still-unnamed work was inspired by her profound sadness about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I’ve done many, many political pieces,” Schön says. “Some of them are very, very sad and very mean and cruel and show a very dark side of my life.”

95-year-old Nancy Schon at her Massachusetts home with her sculpture depicting a Russian boot, emblazoned with a bear-face and fangs, crushing a delicate nightingale, the state bird of Ukraine. The bird rests on a tear-shaped pool of rubble. (Karyn Miller-Medzon/Here & Now)

The powerful new sculpture shows an oversized military boot — its toe transformed into a bear face with fangs — about to descend on a tiny nightingale, the state bird of Ukraine. The bird stands atop a tear-shaped pool of rubble. Inside the boot is a hammer and sickle.

95-year-old Schön drew inspiration from decades ago when movie theater newsreels were a major information source.

“I remember when Hitler went into Czechoslovakia and all I saw on these newsreels were boots. Somehow they didn’t show the people. They just saw boots, boots, boots,” she says. “Somehow that stayed with me. And the minute I saw the first news about Ukraine, that came to mind. And it stuck with me all these years.”

Schön’s work has a long-standing tie to Russia. At the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, then-First Lady Barbara Bush invited Russia’s First Lady Raisa Gorbachev to meet in Boston. They visited “Make Way for Ducklings” where they met Schön.

When Schön saw how charmed Gorbachev was by the sculpture, she created the first and only copy of the piece and delivered it to Russia herself.

Watch on YouTube.

Just weeks after her initial visit in 1991, the coup attempt by Communist hard-liners to seize control of the Soviet Union by holding then-President Mikhail Gorbachev captive took place. In 2000, she returned to replace a few of the ducks that had been stolen as a tribute to Raisa Gorbachev, who died in 1999.

Now, Schön feels the weight of Russia’s war in Ukraine. She sees the ducklings in Moscow as a symbol for Russians who’ve been unwillingly caught up in the war. After this piece, Schön says she plans on continuing to push social commentary in her work. She’s already looking to other wars and the climate crisis as inspiration.

“I have this side that I’ve done all this wonderful public art sculpture for kids, for people, for everyone,” Schön says. “It’s about time I tell about my other side.”


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin YoungGrace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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