World-renowned metalsmith dies at 74


Longtime Chestnut Hill resident Sharon Church McNabb, an acclaimed metalsmith and studio jeweler who won a long list of distinguished honors from the nation's top arts organizations, died in her home on Christmas Day 2022, of progressive supranuclear palsy.

Church's work is included in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Delaware Art Museum, Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Germany; the Los Angeles Museum of Art; the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Yale University Art Gallery; the National Gallery of Australia and many others.

A professor emerita at the University of the Arts in Center City, Sharon Church (the name she used professionally) received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of North American Goldsmiths in 2018. She was elected a Fellow of the American Craft Council in 2012 and won their “Master of American Craft” award in 2015; she won the Medal of Distinction from the Philadelphia Art Alliance in 2010; She was named Distinguished Artist and Distinguished Educator by the James Renwick Alliance for Craft in 2018; she won the Craftsmen’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997 and the 1999 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching at the University of the Arts, among others.

Church once wrote that her unique works of sculpture, necklaces and bracelets, created from precious metals and stones as well as carved segments of wood, horn and bone, “physically embody the cycle of birth, life, death and renewal and speak to the riddle of our existence.”

We have all read stories about famous people who were too busy and preoccupied with their careers to spend quality time with their children. McNabb's daughter Eliza, now an interior designer in New York City, said her mother was just the opposite.

“She was an amazing mom,” said Eliza, who is a graduate of Germantown Friends School. “She made sure we spent lots of time together. She would take me with her to gallery openings and have dinners together and encourage me not to follow in her footsteps but to follow my own creative instincts, which is what I have done. What stood out the most to me was how fierce, convicted and passionate she was about her work.

According to her daughter, Church was an active member of St. Martin's Church, and Weavers Way as well as the GFS and University of the Arts school communities. She also loved walking in the Wissahickon, and spent a lot of time at Morris Arboretum.

“She loved living in Chestnut Hill and the mix of people in Mt. Airy, where I grew up,” Eliza said. “She loved the beauty of this area and all of the nature that surrounds it. Her favorite restaurant was Jansen. We would get their takeout Thanksgiving dinner, and our last dinner together was at Jansen.” 

Sharon Church was born in 1948 in Richland, Washington, but when she was a child her family moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she graduated from Tower Hill School, Class of 1966. Her father was a construction engineer for DuPont. She wrote about being influenced by watching her mother do detailed craft work.

In 1970, Church earned a B.S. from Skidmore College and was a student of the renowned Albert Paley in graduate school. She earned an MFA from The School for American Craftsmen at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1973. In 1979 she began teaching at Philadelphia College of Art (later University of the Arts), and after 35 years she retired in 2014, becoming a professor emerita.

“I really believe craft has within it the key to valuing a human life,” she wrote. “To make something with your hands, to know that you exist, to see that that existence has value, even for someone who just likes doing it, has enormous value.” 

Church married Andrew McNabb, a sculptor and architectural aide, in the early 1980s, gave birth to Eliza and lived in Mt. Airy. Andrew died in 1993. In 2003 Church married Phillip Johnson, a sculptor and owner of the Phillip Johnson Construction Company, and they lived for the last 10 years in Chestnut Hill.

Church served on the board of directors of the Society of North American Goldsmiths (1983-1987) and was production coordinator for Metalsmith magazine (1986-1987). She wrote for Metalsmith and other magazines. 

In addition to her daughter and husband, Church is survived by a brother and other relatives. A celebration of her life will be held later. Donations in her name may be made to Morris Arboretum, 100 E. Northwestern Ave., Phila., PA 19118.

Len Lear can be reached at