World-renowned metalsmith dies at 74
Sharon Church McNabb, a longtime Chestnut Hill resident, a celebrated metalsmith and jeweler who has received a long list of distinguished awards from the country’s top arts organizations, died at her home of progressive supranuclear palsy on Christmas Day 2022.
Church’s work is in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Delaware Art Museum, Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Germany; the Art Museum of Los Angeles; the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Yale University Art Gallery; the National Gallery of Australia and many others.
Professor Emeritus at the University of the Arts at Center City, Sharon Church (the name she used professionally) received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of North American Goldsmiths in 2018. She was elected a Fellow of the American Craft Council in 2012 and won the Master of American Craft award in 2015; In 2010 she won the Philadelphia Art Alliance Medal of Distinction; She was named Distinguished Artist and Distinguished Educator by the James Renwick Alliance for Craft in 2018; In 1997 she won the Craftsmen’s Fellowship of the National Endowment for the Arts and in 1999 the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching at the University of the Arts.
Church once wrote that her unique sculptures, necklaces and bracelets, created from precious metals and stones and carved segments of wood, horn and bone, “physically embody the cycle of birth, life, death and renewal and speak to the enigma of our existence.” “
We’ve all read stories about famous people who were too busy and preoccupied with their careers to spend quality time with their children. McNabb’s daughter Eliza, now an interior designer based in New York City, said her mother was quite the opposite.
“She was an amazing mom,” said Eliza, who is a graduate of Germantown Friends School. “She made sure we spent a lot of time together. She took me to gallery openings and dinners together and encouraged me not to follow in her footsteps but to follow my own creative instincts in what I did. What struck me the most was how fierce, confident and passionate she was about her work.
According to her daughter, Church was an active member of St. Martin’s Church and Weavers Way, as well as the JRC and University of the Arts school communities. She also enjoyed walking in the Wissahickon and spent a lot of time at the Morris Arboretum.
“She loved life in Chestnut Hill and the mix of people in Mt. Airy where I grew up,” Eliza said. “She loved the beauty of this area and all the nature that surrounds her. Her favorite restaurant was Jansen. We got her Thanksgiving dinner to go and our last dinner together was at Jansen.”
Sharon Church was born in Richland, Washington in 1948, but when she was a child her family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she received her degree Tower Hill SchoolBorn in 1966. Her father was a civil engineer at DuPont. She wrote about being influenced by watching her mother do the detailed craft work.
Church earned a BS from Skidmore College in 1970 and was a student at the prestigious Albert Paley Graduate School. she In 1973 she earned an MFA from the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 1979 she began teaching at the Philadelphia College of Art (later the University of the Arts) and retired in 2014 after 35 years to become Professor Emeritus.
“I truly believe that craft holds the key to appreciating a human life,” she wrote. “To make something with your hands, to know that you exist, to see that there is value in that existence, even for someone who just loves doing it, has tremendous value.”
Church married Andrew McNabb, a sculptor and architectural assistant, in the early 1980s, gave birth to Eliza, and lived in Mt. Airy. Andrew died in 1993. In 2003 Church married Phillip Johnson, a sculptor and owner of the Phillip Johnson Construction Company. and they have lived in Chestnut Hill for the last 10 years.
Church was a board member of the Society of North American Goldsmiths (1983-1987) and production coordinator for Metalsmith magazine (1986-1987). She wrote for Metalsmith and other magazines.
In addition to her daughter and her husband, Church leaves behind a brother and other relatives. A celebration of her life is later held. Donations on their behalf can be made to Morris Arboretum, 100 E. Northwestern Ave., Phila., PA 19118.
Len Lear can be reached at [email protected]