Sculpting History

Hometown Heroes, People
on January 20, 2002

Brian Hanlon shapes memories. A sculptor, his chief subject is giving form to the past and catching people’s proudest moments.

Highlights from Hanlon’s career include a sculpture honoring 100 years of volunteer firefighters, which stands in downtown Toms River, N.J., and a statue recently unveiled in Barnegat Light (pop. 764) celebrating New Jersey’s fishermen. Last summer, he dedicated a bronze statue of a teacher reading to four elementary school students that now stands outside The Village School in the town where he grew up, Holmdel, N.J. (pop. 15,781).

Hanlon’s current pride and joy, The Spirit of the Little League, was dedicated this past fall. Inspired by the World Championship won by Toms River in 1998, Hanlon helped create the committee that has overseen the statue’s development. “The neighboring communities of Brick and Lakewood have had incredible teams as well,” Hanlon points out.

Now 40 and a resident of the Pleasant Plains area (pop. 2,577) of Toms River, Hanlon has sculpted professionally for more than 20 years. With the support of his wife, Michele, he created Hanlon Studios in 1994. A father of four—Molly, Maggie, Luke, and Declan—he loves living and working in the small Ocean County town that was once dotted with poultry farms.

Tucked behind a quiet residential street, the studio where he works is one of four old chicken coops once part of a farm, now filled with plaster casts and rubber molds. “I think it’s cool,” Hanlon smiles. “George Segal, one of the most famous American sculptors, is my hero, and he worked out of a chicken coop in South Brunswick for 50 years.”

A shelf in back holds busts Hanlon has sculpted over the years. Sea Bright’s Mayor Charles Rooney rests next to Pro Football Hall of Famer Dwight Stephenson. In describing each work, Hanlon pauses at Count Basie.

“That was an incredible experience,” he smiles. “A board member from the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, N.J., asked me to sculpt a bust of the Count.” His blue eyes sparkle as he continues. “I think Count Basie is the greatest band leader in history, so I jumped at the chance. B.B. King and I unveiled it together at the theater in 1999.”

Hanlon is interrupted by Molly Feldmus, the German woman who owns the chicken coops; she’s stopped by to say good morning. “Molly’s a big part of why I chose to do the Holocaust Memorial for the B’nai Israel Congregation in Toms River,” Hanlon explains after she leaves. “A lot of German holocaust survivors settled in New Jersey after the war. It was important to me to remember them.”

For that matter, it was a memory that turned him to sculpture as a lifelong pursuit. At Monmouth University on a track scholarship, Hanlon majored in art education and planned on teaching. Then, as a sophomore, he sculpted a statue honoring a Holmdel High School javelin thrower whose life tragically had been cut short. When he unveiled it for the athlete’s parents, it changed his life. “It was something about the look on his mother’s face,” Hanlon says, “that told me I needed to be a sculptor because I could make a difference as an artist.”

His work continues to make a difference. Joe Cannova, a local businessman and the chairman of the Spirit of the Little League committee, is excited about what Hanlon’s current statue represents to Toms River. “It was amazing what these kids did,” Cannova says. “They were the very best. The whole town got drawn in, and it forged a positive bond in the community. People still talk about that game.” (Toms River defeated Kashima, Japan, 12-9). Hanlon’s bronze statue of a coach and his player commemorates that excitement—and honors all those who take part in Little League.

Much of Hanlon’s work is rooted in history. Included on his docket are sculptures of retired University of Virginia football coach George Welsh and religious figure Padre Pio. But he’s already thinking ahead.

“I really want to do a statue of Mickey Mantle,” he grins. “He was the greatest baseball player who ever lived.”