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Death of Sculptor Larry Nowlan of Windsor Called a ‘Big, Big Loss’

  • Artist Larry Nowlan squeezes through the front door of his Windsor studio in Feb. 2006,  next to a rough enlargement — made of clay — of part of a relief featuring Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner, in action. The University of Iowa commissioned Nowlan to do a relief and a statue honoring Kinnick. (Valley News — Denise Farwell)

    Artist Larry Nowlan squeezes through the front door of his Windsor studio in Feb. 2006, next to a rough enlargement — made of clay — of part of a relief featuring Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner, in action. The University of Iowa commissioned Nowlan to do a relief and a statue honoring Kinnick. (Valley News — Denise Farwell) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Larry Nowlan works on a 12-foot-tall clay sculpture of 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick in his studio in Windsor, Vt., on Nov. 4, 2005. (Valley News — David M. Barreda)

    Larry Nowlan works on a 12-foot-tall clay sculpture of 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick in his studio in Windsor, Vt., on Nov. 4, 2005. (Valley News — David M. Barreda) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Artist Larry Nowlan squeezes through the front door of his Windsor studio in Feb. 2006,  next to a rough enlargement — made of clay — of part of a relief featuring Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner, in action. The University of Iowa commissioned Nowlan to do a relief and a statue honoring Kinnick. (Valley News — Denise Farwell)
  • Larry Nowlan works on a 12-foot-tall clay sculpture of 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick in his studio in Windsor, Vt., on Nov. 4, 2005. (Valley News — David M. Barreda)

Lawrence J. Nowlan Jr., a realist sculptor whose swift rise to prominence coincided with his move to the Upper Valley, died Tuesday at his Cornish home of natural causes. He was 48.

Nowlan was still a student at the New York Academy of Art when he came to Cornish in 1995 as an artist-in-residence at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

“That first summer really kind of set the course for his career,” Henry Duffy, curator at the historic site and a friend of Nowlan’s, said Wednesday.

In short order, Nowlan went from graduate school to his first major commission, a set of large bronze figures for the National Wildland Firefighters Monument in Boise, Idaho.

Since then, Nowlan has worked steadily in the tradition of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, producing bronze memorials of great heft and emotional clarity for clients around the country. His work resides at the entrance to New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, in the form of a bronze likeness of Ralph Kramden, Jackie Gleason’s character in The Honeymooners. Outside Citizen’s Bank Park in Nowlan’s native Philadelphia is a sculpture of legendary Phillies announcer Harry Kalas. The University of Iowa hosts at least three works by Nowlan, who had a particular gift for recreating the grace and power of sports.

More recent work includes a monument at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., a series of bas relief portraits of chefs and vintners for the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif., and a pair of monuments commissioned by the city of Dublin, Ireland in honor of Saint-Gaudens, who was born in Ireland.

For more than 15 years, Nowlan worked in a second-floor studio in Windsor’s former Unitarian church, where he became a beloved fixture of the former industrial town’s Main Street.

“People in Windsor are in a state of shock,” said Ted Hilles, a friend of Nowlan’s. Hilles and his wife, Jane Osgood, own the former church and rented space to Nowlan.

“He’s irreplaceable on almost every level,” said Howard Krum of Windsor, a writer and a friend of Nowlan’s. “As an artist he’s just world class, but as a human being he’s one of the precious few in the world who actually makes a positive impact every day, all the time.”

“It’s a big, big loss,” Krum said of Nowlan’s death.

Krum’s wife, Mary Margaret Sloane, remembered Nowlan’s generosity. He made small reliefs for children’s birthdays, she said. “There are a lot of really wonderful people in the world, but he was truly special,” she said.

As a figurative artist starting out in the mid-1990s, Nowlan was working against the tide of abstraction that had come to dominate artistic expression.

But Nowlan took to sculpture as a true calling. His grandfather Philip Nowlan was the creator of Buck Rogers. Nowlan studied art in college, at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa., but went to work afterward as an art director and designer at a Philadelphia advertising agency. It paid the bills but he was miserable, he told the Valley News in 1999. His interest in sculpture was sparked by a chance encounter with the works of Auguste Rodin in Philadelphia. The teacher of a night class in sculpture at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts recognized Nowlan’s talent and pushed him to go to art school.

He arrived in Manhattan a guy with decidedly working-class tastes, knowing less about art than about sports. “I grew up with regular, everyday working people,” Nowlan said in 1999. “I was overwhelmed in Manhattan. I didn’t know anybody. I thought, ‘Oh man, what am I doing here?’ ”

His affable nature and fierce work-ethic served him well. He earned the Saint-Gaudens residency after his first year in art school. He was in residence at the park for five summers.

“He got more than the average person would get out of being here because he really saw this place as a school,” Duffy said. “It was really from Saint-Gaudens that he began to learn low-relief portraiture.”

His regular-guy persona and love of sports gave Nowlan a particularly deft touch in depicting the human form, Duffy said. “You see a common touch in his art,” he said.

Although Nowlan’s career had taken off when he was still quite young, he was only beginning to hit his stride as an artist, said Duffy. He was earning more commissions and larger ones. Two of the University of Iowa sculptures were a 16-foot standing sculpture of football legend Nile Kinnick, and an 18-foot-wide high relief sculpture of a celebrated touchdown Kinnick scored against Notre Dame.

In April, the city of Philadelphia awarded Nowlan the commission to sculpt a memorial to Joe Frazier, the legendary heavyweight boxer, a work not yet completed.

Several of Nowlan’s sculptures grace the Upper Valley, including the Windsor War Memorial; a bronze figure of a girl reading, installed at Hanover’s Ray Elementary School in memory of longtime teacher Louise Derrick; and, most recently, a bronze wildcat at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden that was installed this spring.

Just this month, a copy of one of the firefighters from his Idaho monument was moved from the Boise airport to Prescott, Ariz., where 19 firefighters died while battling a wildfire.

Nowlan leaves his wife, Heather Nowlan, and two children, a daughter, Monet, 7, and a son, Teelin, 4. An attempt to reach family yesterday was unsuccessful. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.