MIDDLEBURY — With its prominent depiction in the holiday film classic “Miracle on 34th Street,” Macy’s Department Store in New York City has become symbolic of the fantasy many children share about the bounties of Christmas.
Middlebury resident Leon Ward put a large imprint on that Macy’s-fanned fantasy this year. Ward was one of the leaders in creating the iconic holiday window display at Macy’s flagship store on NYC’s 34th Street in Herald Square, a million-dollar undertaking that continues to attract the attention of innumerable shoppers and passersby.
“I was really honored to be a part of it,” Ward, 39, said of his design and artisanal contributions to Macy’s six-window display, titled “Dream … and Believe.”
Ward has been building his portfolio since graduating from the Ringling School of Art & Design in Florida. He began working at art galleries, then signed on with a company called Fine Art Inc., which compiles artwork for businesses.
“My job was to find the artist or create the art, then meet with the buyer and help them design the colors, sizes and frames they wanted,” he said. “I would go around the world, traveling to trade shows to find the right frames and artists.”
After spending seven years with Fine Art Inc., Ward began freelancing in the areas of graphic, architectural and interior design.
“My portfolio started to grow, with a varied look,” Ward said, noting his work has included large sculptural and architectural pieces, as well as murals.
He posted examples of his work on social media, and got noticed. He started getting comments and invitations from people to work on large artistic projects. One of those invitations came from some friends who had been selected to spearhead the 2013 holiday windows for Macy’s in New York.
Ward jumped at the opportunity.
“In the art and design world, it’s very prestigious,” Ward said of the Macy’s project. “A lot of people have tried for their whole lives to be able to do it.”
MIDDLEBURY RESIDENT LEON Ward works on part of an elaborate holiday window display for Macy’s Department Store in New York City. Ward spent two months on the project, which opened Nov. 21.
Photo courtesy of Leon Ward
Thus began a more-than-two-month assignment that saw Ward and dozens of colleagues spend thousands of hours meticulously composing, engineering and assembling displays — some of them electronic — in Macy’s store windows. Ward was one of four leaders for the project, which in a sequence of six windows chronicles the adventures of a young boy who, while asleep in his bed, is approached by a fairy who touches him with a magic wand. The young lad suddenly finds himself in a crystal forest, where he has adventures, surrounded by a delightful variety of intricately fashioned crystal animals, as he learns the meaning of Christmas.
Ward said he took the lead on windows one and six — the bookends of the creative holiday saga. He and his colleagues were assisted by groups of sculptors, animatronics experts, painters, staging and set designers, among others.
Macy’s, as usual, spared no expense, according to Ward.
“The crystal animals cost $80,000 just to cast,” he said. “And that doesn’t count the sculpture work and animatronics.”
The crew included four professional “bejewellers” who painstakingly covered the crystal animals with thousands of faux jewels to cover the animatronics that help the creatures move.
“One deer had more than 10,000 jewels on it,” Ward said.
Other forest fauna included squirrels, foxes, rabbits, a bear, an owl and various birds.
Large LCD screens in the background provide winter ambiance to the scenes. There’s an interactive window that allows passersby to control the falling snowflakes. One of the scenes features a super-realistic waterfall made of wax, leading into some Styrofoam rocks. Glass bubbles are raised via animatronics from the make-believe waterway.
By rule, none of the windows featured any Macy’s merchandise, according to Ward.
Workers toiled until all hours of the day and night, catching sleep when they could. Ward was able to make occasional weekend train visit to his family in Vermont.
All the hard work culminated in the grand unveiling of the holiday windows on Nov. 21. The ceremony included a touching visit from a young cancer patient brought to the site in a horse-drawn carriage. The girl was able to realize her dream of meeting Cinderella.
Ward — and Macy’s — were pleased with how the display turned out. He particularly enjoyed hearing the reactions from children as they drank in the scenes for the first time.
“I remember the kids walking by and being in awe; it was a magical thing,” Ward said. “To me, that’s the best gift of all.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.