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Sculptor by Night
NIA's Rosztoczy Creates Cast of Characters After Hours

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...
Arrayed across a table top on the fifth floor of the Gateway Bldg. in Bethesda is a small coterie of figures, lifelike representations of characters invented by Dickens and Tchaikovsky. Here is Tiny Tim, hobbling on a wooden crutch. There, Jacob Marley, swathed in chains and mummy-gray, freezes in mid-stagger. Nearer is the Harlequin from The Nutcracker, resplendent in mask and parti-colored outfit.

It could easily be the display room of one of the fashionable boutiques that are its neighbor in the upscale glass-and-brick office building. But here on the morning after Thanksgiving -- a time of almost unparalleled hushedness -- it is an NIA conference room devoid of conferees except for these silent, exquisite representatives of the past.

"I do become very attached to them," says their creator Nancy Rosztoczy, assistant to the associate director of the Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging Program. "I feel like they're my children."

One of the sculptures is indeed her child -- son Phil, captured at age 3 in a bust so lifelike that it helped launch her career as a serious sculptor.

"I was always artsy-craftsy since I was a little kid," remembers Rosztoczy. Though her parents didn't make any particular fuss over their daughter's artistic inclination, Rosztoczy encountered an art teacher in eighth grade who encouraged her to sculpt.

"My first figure was a giraffe. [The teacher] entered it in a series of contests and it kept winning." The giraffe took first place in Kalamazoo, then won a statewide competition in Michigan.

"I never got it back," chuckles Rosztoczy. "I wonder what happened to it?"

Nancy Rosztoczy and some of her creations, including (from l) Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Godfather Drosselmeyer (holding the Nutcracker) and Marley.

She didn't pursue art as she grew up passing through a series of 13 American schools as the family moved with her father's career; he specialized in corporate turn-arounds. But she "always had this little thing in the back of my mind." Her hands could create art and she was never unhappy when she was making it.

When her first son, Steve, was born, she "thought it would be neat to give my husband a head study." She looked for someone to do the job but "no one wanted to do it. No one wanted to get involved with a squirmy kid."

So she bought a book called How to Sculpt, 10 pounds of modeling clay and three tools. While her husband was away on a business trip, she took the opportunity to sculpt Steve, who was pacified by his grandmother. "She gave him a model car to distract him, and kept him supplied with vanilla wafers."

The finished job was too good to pass off as luck. "It was a good likeness," Rosztoczy recalls. "People recognized him. A friend of mine saw it and said 'Go study, you have talent.'"

Then living in Hartford, Conn., she signed up for a sculpting class in a city-run adult education program. The teacher insisted that all students begin with the rudiments, including a plaque. But Rosztoczy, who had never taken an art class (she earned a B.S. in psychology at Guilford College) was anxious to begin another head study, this time of her second son, Phil.

"I whipped off the three preliminary sculptures the teacher asked us to do in order to be able to do the head," she remembers. Impressed with Rosztoczy's seriousness, the teacher became a friend and further encouraged her artistry. Perhaps more significantly, Rosztoczy's mother convinced a well-known American sculptor named Earline Heath King to review her daughter's work. King saw the head study of son Phil and added her blessing to Rosztoczy's ambition. That would be all she needed to commit seriously to a life of artwork.

When her husband took a job with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, Rosztoczy enrolled at Montgomery College for sculpting classes with Oreste Poliszczuk, a Ukrainian artist "who was the only one who could pronounce my name," she quips. She spent 5 years with him, winning an A in every class she took.

In 1979, a friend asked her to sculpt a figurine of the character Scrooge from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol for a sale. "That sort of launched things," says Rosztoczy, understatedly.

Rosztoczy's figurines from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol include (from l) Scrooge bearing a candlestick, Tiny Tim and Marley.

She made a 60-figure limited edition for the sale. The 24 she donated to the organization sold in the first 10 minutes. Customers who bought Scrooge wanted to know what was coming next from Atelier Rosztoczy.

She went on to do nine characters from Dickens' Christmas classic, including Tiny Tim, Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and the various ghosts of Christmas. To accommodate the production, Rosztoczy's husband built her a studio in the basement of the family's Potomac home. "It was perfect for when the kids were young," she says. "I worked all day while they were in school."

After her public "debut" in 1979, "things really started to roll," she said. A local businessman commissioned 80 pieces that he gave as gifts to longtime employees and used at trade shows to detail concepts difficult to envision. Demand for the Dickens figurines bumped the limited editions to lots of 100. Relying solely on word of mouth among satisfied customers, her base of clients steadily climbed. The Nutcracker figurines in which she is now immersed are done -- one new figure each year -- in lots of 200. Though they sell for $225 each, the cost barely covers the effort of making them.

"It takes a very long time to do one character, but it's a labor of love," she says. Painting the figures, often in meticulous detail, adds time, as do the rigors of her intricate design, crafting the clothes and creating such accoutrements as the special hand-cast buttons that adorn Tiny Tim's jacket. It took her a year to find the metal chain on Marley's ghost, for example. Her mother pitches in by hand-knitting scarves worn by Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit. "I really researched the history and costuming of the era to make it as authentic as possible," she says.

"I have to see every new piece completely in my mind before starting the armature," which is the bent wire foundation for each figure's pose. Simply put, she attaches the clay to the armature to create a character. Then Rosztoczy makes a mold of this prototype, into which she pours a casting material. The figures that emerge resemble the original sculpture and are ready for the finish work. Then they are hand-painted and dressed.

As Christmas 1996 approached, Rosztoczy was working every night to complete orders from customers in 18 states and 2 foreign countries. Most customers want full sets of figurines. She will also do portrait work -- busts of children, for example -- if asked, and hopes one day to land a major commission for public sculpture such as appears in downtown Washington.

"I feel very capable of doing a major work of art, like the one at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial," she says. She once did a commission of Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White that resulted in 30 gold medallions. But absent the glitter of a high-profile commission, Rosztoczy is well rewarded by the art itself.

"Art keeps me out of trouble," she laughs. "I'm real happy when I do my work. The studio brings peace, calm and happiness. I really thrive on it and love it. I've made a lot of wonderful friends through the years."

The Potomac Library has displayed her work on several occasions and the Bethesda Library on Arlington Rd. wants her figures for their showcases next May and December. She has been featured on local TV news and in community newspapers. She has also fielded offers from foreign companies to churn out cheap knock-offs of her copyrighted figures, but has rejected the chance to profit on substandard work. Her sculptures are now collectors' items, for which a considerable secondary market exists.

But she nonetheless hungers for purer artistic expression, including an imagined piece she is reluctant to discuss. She'll only say, jauntily, "If they need a new head study up there at the Fogarty Center, let me know."

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