Over the years, the iconic “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture in the Public Garden, with its ever-changing array of topical attire, has come to represent an evolving Boston through the lens of current events, and a new photo book, out today, April 1, explores this local phenomenon using images of the Ducks donning some of their most memorable costumes.
Nancy Schön, the West Newton sculptor who brought the family of aquatic birds from Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings to life in the Public Garden, edited this new photo book called “Ducks on Parade!”
Schön’s bronze sculpture, which was installed on Oct. 4, 1987, traverses 35 feet of cobblestone along the Public Garden and depicts Mrs. Mallard, who stands the tallest at 38 inches, leading her flock of eight ducklings – Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack – through the park.
“Somehow, the Ducks have become a very important part of Boston,” Schön said. “I had no idea that would happen when I did the sculpture. I knew people would love it. I just didn’t know it would become such an important part of the city.”
The book, which runs 64 pages, begins with photos of Schön and her family at the first birthday party for the Ducks in 1988 in the Public Garden and is then divided into two sections – “Four Seasons of Ducks” and “Ducks with a Message.”
“Four Seasons of Ducks” follows Mrs. Mallard and her kin over the course of a year. They wear green for St. Patrick’s Day, all dress as bunnies for Easter, don medals for the Boston Marathon and even masquerade as pilgrims for Thanksgiving, while showing their support for all the home teams, including the Bruins, Celtics, Sox and the Pats, with a changing array of uniforms.
The book’s second section, “Ducks with a Message,” shows the aquatic creatures taking a political stand in costume, such as the knitted pink hats they wore in conjunction with the Boston Women’s March for America, which drew a crowd estimated at 175,000 to the Boston Common on Jan. 21, 2017 – one day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration – in support of women’s rights. Or, during a guerilla art installation in August of 2019, when the Ducks were caged in chicken wire to show solidarity with immigrants facing mistreatment at the border.
The Ducks are also seen showing their support for the BLM movement and donning masks during the COVID age.
A photo, captioned “Ruth Bader Ginsduck,” even shows one Duck dressed as the late Supreme Court Justice.
In the book’s forward by Martin J. Walsh, Boston’s former mayor wrote, “On any given day, you can walk through the Public Garden and find the Mallard family dressed up to reflect the current cultural moment and adorned with props to signify historic milestones in Boston’s history. You’ll see whimsical, over-the-top tributes to holidays and sports teams, and you’ll see serious reflections on our country’s political climate, too. In that way, Nancy Schön didn’t just create one of our city’s most beloved works of public art; she also gave us a living record of life in our city, and encouraged us all to become artists and reflect on the moment we’re living in.”
Of the book, Schön said: “It’s a treasure, I tell you. There are things that are political, and it has to do with art. It’s kind of the history of Boston and the various events.
There were so many people involved, photographers and when you think about what people do to make these beautiful costumes.”
One mystery that remains, however, said Schön, is just who makes the costumes, since no one has taken credit for them yet.
Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, the nonprofit that works in partnership with the Boston Parks Department to care for the Public Garden, as well as the Boston Common and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, wrote: “We are pleased to see Nancy Schön’s delightful new book ‘Ducks on Parade’ is available. The now beloved sculpture was presented to the City by the Friends in 1987 ‘as a tribute to Robert McCloskey, whose story “Make Way For Ducklings” has made the Boston Public Garden “familiar to children throughout the world,’ as the plaque at the site read. All the photographs of the ducklings in costume are a fascinating display of current events over the past 34 years. The Friends is proud to have contributed quite a few photos!”
MoreoverVizza added, “In a very generous gesture, Brandeis University Press [the book’s publisher] have stated that they plan to share a percentage of the proceeds” from the new book with the Friends.
Vizza, along with Leslie Singleton Adam, chair of the Friends’ board, contributed an essay in the book on the Ducks and their role in the Public Garden as well.
Schön said the Ducklings sculpture would never have been erected in the Public Garden if not for Henry Lee, the founder of the Friends group, who agreed to sponsor the sculpture in the park under the auspices of his organization.
“Henry Lee started it all,” Schön said. “If it hadn’t been for him, the ducks never would’ve happened, and not without McCloskey first, of course.”
As for the book, Schön said it never would’ve happened without Sue Ramin, director of Brandeis University Press.
The two women became friends after Ramin successfully pitched the idea of a book devoted to Schön and her sculptures to her employer at the time, Boston-based David R. Godine, Publisher. This resulted in the publication of “Make Way for Nancy: A Life in Public Art” in 2017, which revisits and recounts the great success and many challenges Schön has encountered over the course of her career.
Fast forward to April of 2019 when Schön and Ramin hatched the idea for “Ducks on Parade!” over dinner at Ramin’s home. Both were so ecstatic when they arrived at the idea, said Schön, that they both simultaneously shot up out of their seats in what could be described as a proverbial “Eureka” moment.
Ramin said she had first noticed the Ducks and their changing costumes during her regular walks in the Public Garden when she was working in the city.
“No other sculpture in the city is being decorated with costumes like this,” Ramin said. “It’s a real expression of people’s hopes, their fear and their joys – it’s an expression of the people of the city.”
One challenge Ramin said she and Schön faced in selecting images was that many good photos submitted were ultimately deemed unusable, since they couldn’t be adequately reproduced in the book because of their insufficient size and/or resolution. (Schön had solicited an open call for photo submissions of the Ducks in costume and then sent her favorite images to Ramin for her consideration.)
Ramin extends her gratitude to the book’s designer, Lisa Diercks at Endpaper Studio (http://endpaperstudio.com/), and Vicente Cayuela, a student at Brandeis University, who made the promotional video for the book.
But in the end, perhaps the truest testament to the book comes from Schön herself.
“I’m so proud of this beautiful book,” Schön said. “It’s a marvelous tribute not only to the Ducks, but to the people of Boston who love them and have made these beautiful costumes for them.”
“Ducks on Parade!” is now available through Nancy Schön’s website at www.schon.com, or the Brandeis University Press website at https://www.brandeis.edu/press/books/no-series/ducks-on-parade.html, as well as at local bookstores, including the Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, and from Amazon.