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Larry Nowlan: Larger Than Life

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As terrorist planes were striking the Twin Towers on 9/11, Larry Nowlan was an ocean away in the Sistine Chapel. He couldn’t help but wonder why, as most of the world was witnessing one of the most horrendous acts in history, he was gazing upon one of the most beautiful. “Why do you think that is?” he posed to his wife, Heather.

It’s uncertain if Nowlan ever found an adequate answer to that question. Philosophical and introspective, the fast-rising figural and portrait sculptor left many unanswered questions in the wake of his sudden death a year ago this month. He was 48.

Experiences, opportunities and settings were all the grist for Nowlan’s boundless creative mill. He named his first child Monet, an inspiration fostered during a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Heather. Son Teelin was named after a picturesque town in northwestern Ireland that neighbors Carrick, home to one of Nowlan’s many commissioned sculptures.

Back in the States, Nowlan retreated into the “artistic, magical atmosphere” of the Cornish Art Colony, setting up shop inside a desanctified Windsor, Vt., church where cathedral ceilings allowed space for his larger-than-life work. But he never forgot his Main Line roots and his formative days at Archbishop Carroll High School. In fact, we were classmates. He died a week before our first scheduled interview for this story.

Though the New England colony has its social center in the village of Cornish, N.H., geographically it spreads to the villages of Windsor and Plainfield, N.H. It was the sought-out summer haunt for as many as 100 artists from 1895 through World War I, with Irish-born American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens as its central figure. Painter, illustrator and Haverford College alum Maxfield Parrish would find his way to Cornish. Just like Nowlan, he would die there (in 1966). 

Nowlan first went to Cornish in 1995 as an artist in residence at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Some say Nowlan had the potential to be the second coming of Saint-Gaudens, though we’ll never know now. He arrived exactly 100 years after Saint-Gaudens, who also died young, at 59. “There’s no one working in sculpture who absorbed the teachings of Saint-Gaudens like Larry did,” says Henry Duffy, curator of  Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. “He could be described as the last student of Saint-Gaudens. There are 8,000 pieces in our warehouse; Larry called it his library.”

Nowlan never made such grand comparisons. “He felt like he was given such a gift that he had to open up, let it go, and flow,” says older brother Peter, a commercial building superintendent who lives in Bala Cynwyd. “But he was humble and sincere.”

From left: Nowlan working on a piece for the University of Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium; his mock-up of Joe Frazier; the artist and “Welcoming Jesus,” for his alma mater.

Nowlan is one of seven siblings, and the dynamics of a large family can be distracting for any serious artist. So he left for New England. “He embraced the country life,” Peter, 55, says. “He needed that calm and quiet.”

There have been various attempts to rebuild the Cornish colony, which had petered out by the 1930s. “Larry loved being there, and he wanted to bring in other artists,” Peter says. “He wanted to grow the colony again.” 

arry Nowlan’s mother died of a heart attack on the operating table; it wasn’t her first. His father succumbed to a massive coronary at 52, so the artist must have pondered the likelihood of suffering the same abrupt fate.

Two local pieces were among the works Nowlan was finishing when he passed away. Philadelphia had commissioned a memorial to Joe Frazier, and Nowlan had completed a mock-up of the eight-foot, 800-pound bronze statue. It has since been recommissioned to Philadelphia sculptor Stephen Layne for installation later this year outside XFINITY Live!

Layne didn’t know Nowlan, but he’s heard many good things. “We were of the same age and both in apparently good physical shape,” he says. “It was shocking and sad to hear the news.”

The other commission was a bronze “Welcoming Christ” monument for his high-school alma mater. It was to be placed near the entrance of the school and surrounded by a beautiful sitting area designed and installed by Claudio Recchilungo, a 1981 alumnus. Nowlan and I graduated in 1983. In our last phone conversation, he mentioned that the Jesus statue was his “penance to Carroll” for all his misbehavior there.

Marita Coffey Finley’s daughter, Gabrielle, was a freshman at Carroll when Nowlan appeared at a career day. Once home, she matched wits with her mother, who was thinking that the school needed a more impressive entryway into the 57-acre Radnor campus to clearly reinforce a “Catholic identity.” 

A 1986 Carroll graduate, Coffey Finley coordinated the fundraising effort for the monument. Everything was in place—planning, permits, approvals, funding—for an installation last fall at Carroll. Nowlan had finished the figure sans some fine details, but it still needed to be cast and have its bronze patina applied. “He had sent me the last pictures,” she says.

Then Coffey Finley received the diffi-cult phone call. “I haven’t processed it,” she says. “For myself, for all Carroll people, I hope that we’ll be guided by the Holy Spirit to tell us when the time will be right, and we can learn how to bring his work
to completion.”

Coffey Finley reached out multiple times to Heather with cards, letters, emails. Once before the holidays, she responded. “She said she absolutely loves the [Jesus] statue and is attached to it,” says Coffey Finley. “It’s in the studio, but she knows in her heart that it belongs at Carroll, and that it’s what Larry wanted. I asked, ‘How can we help bring it back?’ Now, we’re waiting on her.” 

Two years ago, Nowlan spoke about his Catholic-school upbringing in a lecture and reception at the Brunnier Art Museum at Iowa State University, where he has installations at the Cyclone Sports Complex. “I spent a lot of time drawing in my copybooks—and getting in trouble for it,” he said to the crowd. “For 360 days of the year, I’d get detention for drawing in my copybooks. Then, for five days, they asked me to paint the manger, and I’d become a superstar. By January, we’d start detentions again.”

Frank Fox, a 1977 Carroll alum and the school’s new president, has begun a promised school “transformation.” His Carroll50 initiative is helping boost enrollment toward a goal of 1,200 by the school’s 50th anniversary (2017-18). A 40-percent increase is expected for the incoming freshman class. 

One Carroll50 innovation is honoring significant alumni with permanent show-cases. Nowlan’s shrine was dedicated April 7. Larry Nowlan Day included the announcement of an art scholarship in his name—one that’s been initiated by his graduating class.

The arrival of the “Welcoming Jesus” statue was not a prerequisite. The school would host a separate installation, and hasn’t expressed concern that the bronze isn’t finished. That would match Heather’s wishes that it remain Larry’s work. (Her grief still too fresh, Heather declined to participate in this story.)

Rather, Carroll would almost prefer it as Nowlan left it—though cast and with its patina. “We believe that would be a powerful, symbolic statement,” Fox says. “It would be unfinished, just like our kids when they come to us.”

Philosophically, was Jesus complete until he died on the cross? Would the church be troubled with the unfinished representation? Would it matter? 

“It’s his final piece before he was called to be with God,” says Coffey Finley. “It’s eerie. It’s his last one. It’s a welcoming Jesus, and now Jesus has welcomed him home. Catholics believe that they’re not complete until you’re with Jesus.”

According to Duffy, Nowlan studied the same Christ figure Saint-Gaudens did, and he notes that the monument’s unfinished state makes it all the more powerful. “Larry wasn’t finished—just like Christ’s work isn’t finished,” he says. “With Jesus, what was fascinating to me was to see the development of the face. It changed. It started as a face but ended as an expression of emotion.

For Duffy, it’s the sense that Jesus was taking all the cares of the world onto himself. “Christ is saying, ‘Let me carry your suffering,’” he says. “To me, it’s Larry. It’s his generosity transported into Christ—or maybe Christ was working through Larry.”

Peter says his brother had “a relation-ship [with] and belief in God”—though he wasn’t a practicing Catholic. A justice of the peace presided over his wedding. Lecturing at Iowa State, Nowlan said that, in all his years of attending church, he stared mostly at the artwork and “missed a lot of mass and sermons.” 

The art amazed him. “I’d watch him do pieces and listen to him talk, and there was a connection spiritually,” Peter recalls. “He nurtured the spiritual part of what he was doing.”

Duffy, who had a deep professional and personal friendship with Nowlan, has had a tough time adjusting to life after Larry. “I still feel him, but he was a very spiritual guy,” he says. “He’s with us all.”

 

Left: Nowlan with daughter Monet at the Harry Kalas statue; hanging out with the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards.

Larry Nowlan was born Lawrence Joseph Nowlan Jr. to the late Lawrence and Jeanne Nowlan on Jan. 11, 1965, in Philadelphia. He was raised in Overbrook, then moved to Merion. After Carroll, he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Millersville University (1987), then a master’s from the New York Academy of Art Graduate School of Figurative Art (1996). The sixth of seven kids—three girls and four boys—he was nicknamed “Doobie.” Their mother’s father, Dan Murphey, sang “doobie, doobie, do” to all the grandchildren, but it stuck with Larry. “Maybe he was just a Doobie,” Peter theorizes. “Our mom was still calling him Doobie when she was 80.”

Once, when his brother was in school in New York, Peter called and asked for Larry. A girl answered, said there was no Larry, and hung up. Peter called back and asked for Doobie. “Doobie?” she said. “Yeah, hang on.”

It’s how Duffy first came to know him, too, after arriving at the Saint-Gaudens national site in 1998. Nowlan wandered in one day and said, “I’m Doob.”

Nowlan always maintained that his art was an “out of body” experience because it was so “instinctual.” His father’s father was Philip Francis Nowlan, creator of the Buck Rogers character of the late 1920s, so artist genes ran in the family.

Peter remembers Nowlan tinkering in the garage, trying to build the better bike, modifying his, theirs, anyone’s. “His creative mind was always on the go,” he says.

Out of college, he worked with an advertising agency. In six years, he was promoted to art director, but he thought his career lacked direction. Then, he picked up a Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts catalog and took a night class in human figure sculpture. “Look around,” he remembered an instructor saying. “These people have been doing this for years. Look at your statue, and then look at theirs.”

Nowlan got the call from the Saint-Gaudens site while in graduate school. He initially thought they were asking him for a donation. He interviewed in person, and then spent five years working there in two shifts. While there, he met Heather Wiley, an intern for the Student Conservation Association. They married in 2003. 

Around the same time, Nowlan was commissioned for a project by the Wildland Firefighters Monument in Boise, Idaho. Before his death, a copy of one of his figures was installed in Prescott, Ariz., where 19 firefighters died in June 2013.

Soon enough, there was a statue of Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners, which welcomes visitors to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. Nowlan also created awards for the My VH1 Music Awards and ESPN’s ESPYs. He sculpted a seven-foot angel fountain at the Cornish Colony Museum, and a Vermont memorial was modeled after his father, a Korean War veteran. There were tributes to 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick of the University of Iowa, as well as legendary Hawkeye swimmer Jack Sieg and Olympic wrestler Dan Gable. Locally, his Harry Kalas bronze was installed in Citizens Bank Park in 2011.

Once his work was unveiled, it was like seeing an old roommate, said Nowlan. At installations, he often sat in the back of the room.

Though he loved sports, Nowlan was most adept at capturing the human figure’s motion and emotion—every subject’s soul, really. “What Larry was doing was gutsy,” says Duffy, who’s writing a book on the sculptor. “He was taking the classically inspired figurative art, essentially reviving a lost art. He was doing what Michelangelo, Rodin and Saint-Gaudens all did—taking classic Greek and Roman sculpture and modernizing it, making the old new and making it come alive.”

On a trip to Ireland together in 2007, the two often dipped into churches. “He’d be back there praying,” Duffy says, pausing to collect himself. “Otherwise, he fed his spirit through his art. You can feel his spirit in his art, even if it’s in sports figures. You look at Kalas, and it’s alive. Frazier came alive. All his figures are living. It’s another level of technique, and he was getting better, really better. I told him that [with Frazier] he captured a boxer from within.”

In an interview three weeks before his death, Nowlan said he’d begun appreciating living in the moment, calling himself more balanced and at peace. 

“It’s all still coming together,” he said.

Nowlan wasn’t feeling well on that July morning last year. Sitting outside trying to recover from a run, he was irked that he hadn’t made it as far as he’d wanted in preparation for an upcoming 5K with his brother-in-law. Heather was ready to serve breakfast, but she had to call 911 instead. Medics performed CPR and rushed her husband to the hospital. He was gone by the time she got there.

Between 75 and 80 friends—including his brother and a few sisters—came together at the Great American Pub in Conshohocken this past Jan. 11 for what would’ve been Nowlan’s 49th birthday. “It was great,” says Peter. “We shared a common bond and interest. We all had a love for Doobie. Some hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. It was like a reunion.”

An earlier formal memorial service had been scheduled at St. Denis, a parish in Havertown, but as the date approached, Heather requested its cancellation. Her wishes were respected. “He just loved being from Philly and the camaraderie,” Peter says. “He was such a Philadelphia sports fan. His in-laws were Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots fans, but the kids wore Eagles and Flyers stuff. He’d meet his friend, Sal, a mason, in South Philly, and they’d talk clay and mortar over espresso. He loved hoagies.”

When home, Nowlan made it a point to go to Bill’s Market in Overbrook. “He’d have to get a hoagie—no matter what,” Peter says. “Then one time, he went in, and the ownership had changed—and the perfect hoagie went out the door. So we started going to Pastificio (on Packer Avenue in Philadelphia).”

Peter has declared his brother’s Jan. 11 birthday “Doobie Day.” This past January, he was driving to get an Italian hoagie with pickles—his brother’s favorite—when a BMW pulled in front of him. Its vanity plate read “DOOBS-1.” 

“Are you kidding me? What’s the chance of that?” Peter says now. “I’m not ruling out coincidences; I remain skeptical. He’s gone, and though I don’t want to hold on … Then you see something like that, and I was like, ‘Yeah, man. I hear you.’ I was sad, and then I saw that. But there are still a lot of whys. I made a pact with myself not to ask why. Then a few weeks went
by, and I said, ‘I can’t do that. I’ll drive myself crazy.’”

Heather declined an autopsy, but Nowlan was an organ donor. For years, he gave away small bas-reliefs of angels to families who’d lost loved ones. 

Last Thanksgiving, Peter traveled with Heather to her parents’ place 90 minutes south of Cornish for dinner. She asked him if he wanted to go into the studio. He declined. “The last time I was in there, it was with Doobie,” he says. “I know I want to spend time in there again, just chilling out—alone. I haven’t even seen Jesus.”

Since then, Peter has been to the studio, and he saw the “Welcoming  Jesus.” But he’ll never understand why Jesus took his brother away.

Visit www.ljnsculpture.com.