Sunday, November 29, 2009

Norman Rockwell

I think like most people my age, I have mixed feelings about Norman Rockwell. Growing up, we had four framed Norman Rockwell prints over our living room couch. They were the four seasons, and a quick Google search shows they were the "Young Love" series-- still available on collectible plates. I saw them every day, and engraved on my brain is the one of the boy testing the buttercup under the girl's chin, and the one of him carrying her books to school. There is a dog in every picture. The kids are freckle-faced and belong to an idyllic "small-town" America.

I like Norman Rockwell's work, and like many was surprised to see his more socially conscious pieces later in life. I appreciate that he always saw himself as an illustrator-- he had a genuine lack of pretension in that way. I don't embrace his vision, though for the most part that may have to do with seeing too many of his images on collector plates. Still, I was surprised this morning to hear in a story on the photographers who took the photos he painted from, that one painting, "New Kids in the Neighborhood," was based on a story on integration in Park Forest, Illinois.

Of course, the models are in Vermont, where Rockwell lived. I don't know where the houses are from, but that is not Park Forest. In Park Forest, the houses in the neighborhoods are much closer together, the lawns end much closer to the street, and I'm assuming the houses are smaller. They're certainly not made of brick and stone. They're 1950s split-levels.

It's funny that I assumed I'd see my Park Forest in the painting. Rockwell painted it in 1967. Well, I was in Park Forest in 1967! I was three years old and living in the Co-ops. What I do like about this painting is that all the children are from the same class. They are all middle class children. In fact, the African American children are quite dressed up. They're making a first impression. One can write a back story to this. And the white kids are interested as anyone would be to have new children in the neighborhood. I still vividly remember the arrival of new children in both the Co-ops and on Farragut Street. The day Katie moved out was one of great sadness, and the day Michael moved in was one of great anticipation, some anxiety, and much joy. The first storybook I wrote was in sixth grade, and it opened with a moving truck bringing a mysterious and magical girl to the neighborhood, and ended with the moving truck that took her away.

I don't see my Park Forest in the painting, of course. This is the crux of Rockwell, I think, the blend of "realism" with his very specific vision of how people looked and what they were up to. Steve says the lasting value of his work is that it was narrative-- that back story I was talking about. And I agree. As long as we also realize that the narrative is fiction, not history.


Diane said...

Hi Susan,

I too was in Park Forest in 1967 and this piece on NPR this about Norman Rockwell's painting of Park Forest caught me by surprise. Did your dad coach softball with Mr. Sizemore?

Diane Goodwin
Park Forest resident 1964-1984

Susan Sink said...

He certainly did-- go Kittens! I think we played on the team together... I didn't know until later how historically significant Park Forest is. Thanks for commenting, Diane!

Sarah Reynolds said...

Hi Susan. I found your blog via Diane Goodwin's FB entry. How great to have found you. GO KITTENS.
-Sarah Reynolds