Sherl Joseph Winter, known as “Joe,” liked nothing better than to bring laughter and joy to children.
He nailed it in 1966 when he sculpted the climbable Family of Bears for a pocket park at Third and Delancey Streets. The whimsical piece won him a design award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and was viewed with misty eyes by those leaving the neighborhood.
“It has become something of a Philadelphia icon,” his relatives said in a tribute. “Many families, especially those who are relocating, have requested a replica to remember their happy moments spent in the park.”
Mr. Winter, 85, a sculptor for 50 years, died Sunday, July 19, of cancer at his home-studio in a converted carriage house in Chestnut Hill.
His artistic gift took him far afield. While Family of Bears was his best-known piece in the city, he created outdoor sculptures for display in Ambler, Danville, Pa., and Norristown, and as far away as Salem, Mass., where he designed and crafted an award-winning fountain sculpture for the town square.
He designed liturgical sculptures for local churches and medals for the U.S. Mint. During his tenure at the Mint, Mr. Winter designed the commemorative 1986 Statue of Liberty half-dollar (reverse) and the commemorative 1988 Olympics silver dollar (reverse).
His sculptures were exhibited at the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill and Allied Artists, a society in New York City.
“Joe’s Family of Bears, which shares its name with Three Bears Park, is a beloved work of art, and it has brought joy to generations of Philadelphians,” said William R. Valerio, director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum. “It made Joe happy because he knew that most artists can only aspire to touch so many people’s lives.
“He was a much-admired member of Philadelphia’s family of artists and will be missed at Woodmere, as he will be across the city.”
Born in Dayton, Ohio, he grew up in various cities where his father served as a pediatrician in the Navy, and he graduated from Georgetown Prep in the Washington suburbs.
After moving to Philadelphia, Mr. Winter discovered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and teacher Walker Hancock, who introduced students to medallic sculpture. “This proved to be a strong direction for Joe’s work,” the family said.
Mr. Winter earned bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in 1959, in a coordinated program involving Penn and the academy.
While an undergraduate, he met Kathleen McKenna, a fellow student and painter. She liked to say she got the best prize at the academy – Mr. Winter. They married in 1956 and raised three children in Chestnut Hill.
In 1967, he joined the Mint as a sculptor-engraver and had several of his designs chosen for medals during the Marine Corps Bicentennial and the American Revolution Bicentennial.
After 16 years, he left the Mint and with his wife opened the Winter Art Studio in Chestnut Hill, where he designed and executed many medals and coins for private mints across the country.
From 2005 to 2009, he served on the board of the national Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee. The committee advised the secretary of the treasury on any theme or design proposal for circulating coins, Congressional Gold Medals, and other medals.
Mr. Winter designed a Baptistry wall sculpture for Our Mother of Consolation Church in Chestnut Hill, a statue of St. Gianna Beretta Molla for the Shrine of the Nativity of Our Lord in Warminster, and a wall sculpture for Old St. Mary’s Church in Society Hill.
He taught studio art at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.; Chestnut Hill College; and the former Christian Brothers Scholasticate in Elkins Park.
He loved all aspects of art, but was especially fond of medallic work, he told the New York Times. “A penny is more than loose change,” he said. “You are carrying around a little piece of sculpture all the time.”
Besides his wife, he is survived by children Kathleen, Sherl Jr., and Genienne Navarro, and six grandchildren.
Plans for a memorial Mass were pending due to the COVID-19 pandemic.