Spring 2017

The Art of Loving Animals

Sculptor Merrilyn Marsh draws her inspiration from the human-animal bond.

By Kim Thurler

The Animal Lover, the bronze sculpture that stands outside the new entrance to the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals, aptly describes its creator, Merrilyn Delano Marsh.

The piece is 40 inches tall and depicts a woman standing with a cat perched on her shoulders and surrounded by other animals. It’s autobiographical, said Marsh, a 1947 graduate of Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts who went on to study in Paris.

“I had a cat, and when I took it to the vet for the first time, I carried it in my arms. I didn’t realize that you usually take a cat in a carrier,” she said. “There was a big German shepherd in the waiting room. My cat took one look and climbed right up around my neck. That hurt!”

Marsh donated the sculpture to Cummings School. Her son, George Marsh Jr., is a principal at Payette, the architectural firm for the $10 million project to renovate and expand the 30-year-old hospital.

The Animal Lover is the second bronze cast from a black walnut statue that Marsh carved in 1985. A green patina makes the piece quite distinctive from the first casting, which stands in the cloister garden of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

The relationships between people and animals have influenced Marsh’s work since she was invited to show her drawings, paintings and clay animals at a community art exhibit at age 11. “I’d like people to look at this piece at the Foster Hospital and feel the same love for animals,” she said.

Photo: Anna Miller

Her home is filled with art—chiseled woods, clay, oils and watercolors. At age 93, she continues to paint and sculpt.

In her living room, The Riding Lesson, carved in African mahogany, recalls the times when she and her mother rode horses owned by family friends. Another mahogany piece, Calming Pegasus, shows nearly life-size human and equine heads touching side by side. In Girl with the Butterfly, a clay model ultimately cast in bronze, a child gazes in fascination at a butterfly resting on a flower.

Because sculpture depicts the world in three dimensions, it has always been Marsh’s favorite medium, but, she added, painting is more practical. “It’s harder to transport sculptures, and of course wood can’t be displayed long-term outdoors, because the weather will damage it. Bronze is enduring, but it’s heavy and usually cost-prohibitive.”

Marsh’s Tufts roots run deep. She made bronze portraits of the iconic athletic directors Clarence “Pop” Houston (1962), for the undergraduate student dormitory Houston Hall, and Rocco “Rocky” Carzo, for the dedication of the Carzo Cage in Cousens Gymnasium in 2002. Her bronze bas-reliefs, installed at the university’s Ellis Oval athletic fields in 2001, celebrate the women and men who compete in varsity sports at Tufts.

Her late husband, George Estabrook Marsh Sr., a Pop Houston protégé, earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Tufts in 1940. George and Merrilyn later established a scholarship at Tufts in Houston’s honor.

Merrilyn Marsh said she’s pleased that her alma mater, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, became part of Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences last summer. “I think it means more opportunities for the SMFA and its students,” she said.

The Animal Lover is the second bronze on the Grafton campus created by an artist devoted to animals and who studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Amelia Peabody’s statue of a horse, titled Bucks—The Perfect Hunter, is on display in Cummings School’s main administration building. The Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund, which she established in 1974 to direct her philanthropy, has been a longtime benefactor of the school, including making a $2.5 million challenge gift for the renovation of the animal hospital.

Art has been part of Foster Hospital since it was built. Public art pioneer William Wainwright’s kinetic sculpture Tree of Opals—the leaves are reflective cubes that perpetually change color—has stood on the hill in front of the hospital since 1986, a gift from the family and friends of hospital benefactors Henry and Lois Foster.

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