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Town hopes boy in bronze draws a crowd

Marcia Bellig, from Bethesda, Md., with a model of her life-size sculpture of a boy and his dog. Marcia Bellig, from Bethesda, Md., with a model of her life-size sculpture of a boy and his dog. (BILL POLO/GLOBE STAFF)

The grinning boy in suspenders, a study in clay, sits on a stack of books, waving a straw hat with one hand and balancing a volume in the other, his pet dog at his feet. Right now, he's only a few inches tall. When he takes his permanent perch on a stone pedestal in downtown Franklin, he will be life-size and cast in bronze, and he will look down on West Central Street from above.

The statue of a boy and his dog joins other local efforts to revitalize and attract more visitors, especially walkers, to downtown Franklin, efforts that include $36 million in private, mixed-use development.

The statue's energetic pose is designed to be welcoming and to embody the town's history, according to Marcia Billig, the Maryland artist commissioned to design the installation.

Franklin produced straw hats in the mid- to late-1800s, which explains why the figure has one, said Lisa Piana, the Downtown Partnership manager for the town.

Billig's creation is the largest single expenditure from a $50,000 state grant secured by state Representative James Vallee, a Franklin Democrat. The grant also paid for two decorative signs that display the town's name and announce upcoming events, for new trash and recycling receptacles, and for holiday decorations, Piana said.

The town will also use a $5 million federal grant to redesign its streetscape downtown, which could mean redirecting the flow of traffic, building brick crosswalks, and installing old-fashioned-looking streetlamps, Piana explained.

These projects, coupled with added green space and a mix of condominiums, stores, restaurants, and offices being built by Canton developer John Marini, will help create a New England village in Franklin, Piana said.

Marini plans to spend a total of $36 million on his projects. So far, a $7 million retail and office building is complete, a $7 million retail and condominium building is 50 percent complete, and a $9 million condominium building is 20 percent complete, Marini said. Construction has not yet begun on a fourth phase.

Town Administrator Jeffrey Nutting said he hopes to one day have a path of sculptures strung through Franklin's main corridor.

"It makes it interesting walking downtown," he said, as he marveled at Billig's clay model during her recent visit.

Billig, whose daughter lives in Franklin, brought the clay model to town earlier this month and won design approval from an eight-member local committee. Now, she is back in her Bethesda studio, molding a 3 1/2-foot clay sculpture that will later be cast in bronze. The sculpture will rest, surrounded by benches and green space, in front of the senior center, which will soon become the site of a new town museum.

According to Billig, the statue design needed to be "lively and interactive, so that people would come up and pet the dog and see what he's reading." The stack of books will include titles about Horace Mann, the educator born in Franklin who went on to revolutionize the nation's public education system, and the town's namesake, Benjamin Franklin, who donated books to launch the town's library.

"The charge that the committee gave Marcia was to make a sculpture unique to Franklin," Piana said.

Billig's sculptures usually evoke a sense of movement. She has created a briefcase-toting commuter on roller skates for a train station and a trio of dancing girls for a school. The boy and his books, tentatively titled "Our Town," would be her second piece in Franklin; she has already donated a work called "Fox and Friends" to the Horace Mann Middle School.

The artist, a Georgia native, taught art to elementary school students. When she noticed herself gravitating toward sculpture, she went back to school, earning a master's degree in fine arts from American University. She has now been sculpting for about 20 years.

She estimates it will take her about four months to create the full-size clay sculpture. The piece will then go to a foundry, where it will undergo a five-to-six-month casting process that begins with a rubber mold and includes layers of plaster, wax, and eventually bronze.

"It actually is amazing that it comes out exactly like you make it," Billig said. "It's that first rubber coating that captures the detail."

She and Piana expect to unveil the completed sculpture late next spring.

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