This story came the Curiosity Desk's way courtesy of WGBH listener Susan Lester from Newton, MA.
"I was on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay, just walking along the sidewalk with our dog, Oscar. And we just came across a statue of a Labrador retriever just poking his nose through the fence. And it was just everything I love about public art because it was just out there to be found. When I looked around there wasn’t anything that said who made it or where it came from. And it made me really curious who had done the statue and put it out."
Taking up Susan's case, I headed to the scene at 21 Commonwealth Avenue, and – sure enough – there it was. Steps off the Commonwealth Avenue mall, that bucolic tree-lined island in the heart of the Back Bay, in the shade of the stately townhouses on the north side of the street is a little bronze dog. It's as easy to spot if you know it’s there as it is to miss if you don’t.
"That's so cool," said longtime neighborhood resident David Picheny when I pointed out the statue to him. Picheny and his wife, Janet, were out walking their own dog. His wife, who walks this stretch daily, was equally amazed. "I never knew. I never saw the statue," she said.
That the life-sized sculpture doesn’t immediately jump out at you is really by design, explained Anne Lovett, who along with her husband Steve Woodsum, owns both the statue and dog who inspired it.
"We wanted to add just something to our front yard," she said. "Something that would be a little bit unique and visually interesting for people coming by. Something, sort of, like a little surprise."
That they settled on the playful Labrador Retriever was a natural. Lovett grew up with labs. And back in 2002, after years without a dog, their family got a new puppy who rocked their world. They named her Piper, after the cove on Squam Lake in New Hampshire where they spend much of the summer.
"She just has been the most incredible dog," said Lovett. "Just so low key, but friendly. We have lots of friends and neighbors who have gotten black labs because of Piper."
That includes one family whose kids loved Piper so much they asked to name their own black lab, well, Piper.
"I said you should call your dog whatever you want to call your dog, but I’m sure this Piper would be flattered to have another Piper around," said Lovett.
The Piper sculpture took up residency in the small front yard about a decade ago. The task of immortalizing her in bronze fell to Jim Sardonis, a Vermont-based sculptor with a knack for creating animals in a variety of materials. Among other works of public art, he's done Great Auks in marble for the New England Aquarium, a family of Polar Bears in granite for the Andover Library, and giant bronze whale's tale in upstate New York.
"When I first got there to take photos of the dog in the front yard, the first thing she did was run over and stick her head through the fence there," said Sardonis. "And I thought, ‘gee, this is probably what we should do with the sculpture,'"
Lovett agreed. And so Sardonis modeled Piper in clay, cast her in bronze, and set her in concrete, just as he’d seen her that first day – head playfully poking out between the slats in the low, stone fence.
"One thing that Anne added, which I thought was a great addition, was a little cast bronze tennis ball, which is just outside the fence," said Sardonis.
"Piper loves chasing tennis balls," explained Lovett. "I felt as though it was just a little bit of serendipity that people might not notice the first time or the second time, but maybe the third time they would see it."
When the sculpture arrived, a minor panic ensued, with a neighbor rushing up to Lovett's door
"And [she] said ‘I love the sculpture, but what happened to Piper? Is she ok?' And I explained that it was a tribute, not a memorial," said Lovett.
In the decade since, Piper has become something of a minor local celebrity. She has regular visitors, especially children. Lisa Lingell, who nannies two youngsters, comes by here a few times every week.
"They like to walk around, pet the dog, see the ball, and then we keep moving," she said. "So it’s a nice little break in our walk."
Piper’s been given names like “Blackie” and “Puppy Doggie” by neighbors, and she’s a hit among eagle-eyed tourist.
"People speaking languages other than English coming up and just exclaiming, and taking lots of pictures," said Lovett. "People will put their child on the back of the dog and take pictures."
Lovett enjoys watching it all from the house – and loves playing along, too. Piper gets a witch’s hat at Halloween and a Santa cap at Christmastime. As for the actual Piper, she was in New Hampshire on the day of my visit. At 13-and-a-half, Lovett says she’s now flecked with grey and a little slower than she was in her prime.
"She’s very old for a lab," she said. "We feel as though it’s borrowed time now. But [she's] trucking alone, just happy as ever. Everyone loves her."
And thanks to Anne Lovett’s playful idea – and a little handiwork by Jim Sardonis – Piper is poised to live on here in the neighborhood, long after she leaves this world.
"It’s kind of like a little gem" said Lovett. "Everybody owns a piece of it. Because they found it and they’re so excited. It’s great. We love that."
And so – it seems – does just about everybody else. At least the ones who spot it.