Phillip Hyman wooed his future wife Kay with two unicorn drawings. The unicorns in each of the illustrations exist in a bright, happy fantasyland befitting fairy-tale princesses and daring knights, a world where good always triumphs over evil. Somehow the tenderly penciled, pastel lines managed to express his feelings for his eventual partner. According to Kay Hyman, Phillip told their elementary school-aged daughter, Zoe, "'That was my love letter to your mom.'"
The sketches were the key to Kay's heart, but they were also just a small part in her growing collection of unicorn-themed trinkets. The drawings, and the 50 or so figurines, stuffed animals, frisbees, napkin holders, and other collectibles that Hyman has displayed today in her kitchen represent only a modicum of her total unicorn collection.
"I think what really started it was this one," Hyman, the 2012 readers' pick for Best Do-gooder, says as she picks up the most delicate-looking of the bunch. This one's an eensy glass-blown figurine with no discerning features besides its horn and its legs, which are joined together by a half-moon shape. It's a fragile piece of crystal-clear work, but it's safe in Hyman's gentle hands. "I worked in the mall, and there were glass blowers that would just be there and they would blow glass, and this is the first one I ever got. I wanted one that was a rocking horse."
Hyman was about 15 years old and employed at Brooks Fashion when she made that first gateway purchase in the mid 1970s. She was drawn to the mystique of the mythical creature and to what they personify. "I think this one kind of represents that," she says, motioning toward a figurine of a young girl cradling a unicorn's head in her arms. "A maiden and purity and hope."
A life-long animal lover, Hyman found a new obsession in unicorns. "Sometimes I would ask artists, when I would go to craft shows, I would ask artists to make them," she says. She then points out a little clay unicorn. It's missing one of its legs, but its true character is there in the minute smile painted on its face. "He's handmade. I really like the handmade ones."
Her hands reach for one particular favorite, a finger puppet. Hyman puts one on her finger and then begins discussing a trio of solid brass unicorns; in some cases, she had to save up $30 for each one of the figurines, an expensive price tag for the '70s. There's also an old Avon bottle that smells of classic catalog pefume; its horn is the cap. Another, obviously handmade unicorn has a screw for a horn, and instead of grandly standing or bucking like most of its brethren, this one wriggles on its back, its hooves playfully up in the air. "The way it's positioned, the way he's on his back," she says, "you just don't see that."
Occasionally there's a duplicate in her collection. "A lot of people gave them to me as gifts," Hyman says. "Of course, when you collect something, it makes it really easy for people to give you stuff."
Some of the unicorns have expansive wings, others short, scruffy beards. Blue eyes are common, but no cliched sparkling rainbow manes in this bunch. Limbs have broken here and there, but that's not the most fragile part of the creatures. "The horns, you know, it's easy to break the horns," she says. "They're pointy, and unless it's made out of brass or pewter ..." Hyman doesn't need to finish her warning for the message to be clear.
For Hyman, building this collection was all about the hunt. "At a point in the '80s, you just couldn't find them," she says. "I think that was a part of the mystique of getting them." Spencer's Gifts and candleshops and craft fairs fed her addiction for a while. "And then they got to where there were so many of them that I didn't want to do it anymore. They were just everywhere, and then I thought, it's not challenging anymore."
And so she grew out of it. Hyman got married and life changed. The collection moved into a curio cabinet her father, a woodworker, built especially for it. The animals have been penned in ever since, for the last three decades, except for the ones that are too heavy. Those have gone into storage boxes, padded by unicorn T-shirts.
In fact, Hyman's daughter Zoe had no idea the fantastical cache even existed until she helped her mother tidy them up the night before this interview. Oddly enough, "unicorn" happened to be one of her class spelling words that week. The little girl prefers sock monkeys herself. "When she saw these, her eyes lit up," Hyman says of her daughter. "She said, 'Mom, when you die, what's going to happen to your unicorn collection?' I said, 'You can have it Zoe,' and she was so excited."
Hyman and her family are in the process of buying this house, which used to belong to her mother, who recently passed away. Its spartan state is brightened by the menagerie unleashed on the kitchen table.
"I'm in this process of decluttering," Kay says. "You get to a point in your life, and we're combining two households, so it's going to be really tough for me to pack these guys back up. I don't think I'll put them on display, but they've been in my other house on those two shelves for the last 30 years."
But she could never sell the collection. "I don't think it would be valuable to anyone. They're so much more valuable to me for the memories," Hyman says. She'd rather give it away bit by bit as gifts, but it seems like Zoe is having none of that. Hyman calls her daughter into the room and asks her to repeat what mom told her as they were organizing the collection the previous night. Zoe's face turns serious and her voice becomes solemn.
She says, "Don't break 'em."