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Rockwell at the Trout

Homefront woman

Homefront woman

BY Will Stahl

As a five – seven year-old child in a very small town in northern Illinois, my mother sent me, when shaggy, to a barber shop no more than a hundred yards from our home. It was the real old-fashioned kind with big windows, seats around the walls for waiting (appointments were unknown), the smell of hair tonic mingling with the odor of the bar on the other side of a door, and always piles of tattered magazines.

The ones I remember were the Saturday Evening Posts because their covers were colorful paintings that generally told a story about people much like those in my world. The people might be either sex and any age, and the story might be funny or sad or heartwarming, but I could look at the picture and keep seeing that story happen. They gave me something to do while sitting warily among the town’s characters who often passed back and forth through the door to the seedy tavern.

Many of those covers were probably by Norman Rockwell––when I later saw named examples of his style, they looked so familiar, and the place I saw them belonged in one of those pictures.

The Trout Museum of Art’s current show: “Norman Rockwell: A Portrait of America” displays collections from two different periods in his career, both on loan from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge Massachusetts until October 25. I arranged a visit with Lindsey DePasse, Marketing and Events Coordinator. She passed me off to Rebecca Zornow, Visitor Services and Volunteer Coordinator who gave me a tour of the exhibit, pointing out context and high points.

The first collection, on the lower level, is from the Post covers he did during World War II. Titled “Norman Rockwell in the 1940’s: A View of the American Homefront,” it is mostly covers he painted depicting the lives of ordinary citizens during the war. One series features a GI character called “Willie Gillis,” militarily inept but otherwise charming, based on the amount of attention he receives from women. In one picture, a young woman sleeps peacefully with his picture on her nightstand, in another the same woman is in a confrontation with a taller blond woman, as they each brandish the same photograph of Willie with the same autograph on it. In a third, two attractive USO volunteers fawn over a grinning Willie.

One shows him neglecting his apple-pealing duties to read his hometown paper. In one he’s home on leave, sleeping contentedly in his own bed. A more serious one shows a pensive Willie in a church pew.

Others in the collection portray the daily lives of civilian Americans during wartime, often with a wry humor. A burly “Rosie the Riveter” sits in smudgy self-satisfaction, eating a sandwich with her rivet gun on her lap. A salesman, his clothes on the creek bank, takes a break in a swimming hole. Some are strictly humorous. In one a young woman is dressed in a sort of Uncle Sam outfit and loaded with tools as she races to accomplish all her many roles as a wartime housewife, among them wrenches and oil can for her factory job, rolling pin and milk for her kitchen, hoe, weeder and water can for her victory garden, a coin dispenser and a streetcar conductor hat, headphones under the hat and a red lantern for signaling. This one incidentally is one of several that are paired with the source photograph so the viewer can see Rockwell’s artistic process.

In one striking black-background composition, a slyly smiling soldier glances sideways at his female companion who looks wide-eyed at the “What to Do in a Blackout” pamphlet he is holding. Also present are two examples of his “April Fools” covers, showing ordinary people and activities surrounded by bizarre but carefully blended placements of objects unconnected to the first-glance scene.

Of course the home front collection includes his Four Freedoms, inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech. He originally offered them to the government for free, but was turned down. They were first published as inserts in the Saturday Evening Post, and their popularity caused the government to see its error, and it sent the originals around the country to drum up support for war bond sales.

Some of the covers date to the immediate post-war period and they are remarkably low key and free of triumphalism. A much-matured Willie Gillis studies on the GI Bill. A mother peels potatoes with her soldier son and clearly can’t keep her eyes off him. A sailor sleeps in a backyard hammock with his dog on his lap. A veteran on crutches looks with bemusement at the gift of a war bond.

Home from the War

Home from the War

In one a young Marine has returned a hero (a newspaper story is pinned on the wall) to the place he worked before the war, and his old co-workers surround him, their faces lit with expectation. The veteran sits in the center, loosely fingering his trophy Japanese flag, his expression seeming to say he has no way to explain what he has lived through, and if he honestly tries, he’ll be dredging up things he doesn’t really want to remember. Rockwell’s paintings sometimes show keen insight into human character.

The second part of the exhibit, located upstairs, is called “Norman Rockwell and the American Family.” It contains many of the black-and-white drawings he did for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company ad campaign in the 1950’s and 60’s. Mostly they depict family life, including a series following a young couple through courtship, marriage and children. Many show families in various everyday situations, quiet evenings, minor celebrations and workaday activities. A few show men at work. Quite a number of them reflect the themes and even the compositions of the paintings. A few are shown with the source photographs, demonstrating again how Rockwell used his models.

Though critics debate whether Rockwell can be considered an “artist”––many feel his work is too sentimental and too obvious––no one disputes that he was a consummate craftsman. Art students now study him for his drafting and color skills.

Just as I was about to leave, Trout President Pamela Williams-Lime mentioned a gallery on the third floor that I hadn’t heard about before. It is a relatively recent addition and it is dedicated to local artists. The current exhibit is of photographs taken by the late Loretta Judson, a housewife and mother from Fond du Lac who used her pictures simply to save family memories. Her nephew Richard Margolis found them after her passing and thought they deserved some recognition. She took them in the forties and fifties with an old and rather simple camera, but she had an eye for composition and light. Taken around the same time as the Rockwell covers downstairs were published, they make a good counterpoint to that exhibit and will also be up until October 25.

On my way out I found a large mosaic of a wind-blown American flag being pieced together in the lobby by its designer Kimberly Schonfeld, a local artist. While she was working on it at that moment, she told me volunteers have done most of what’s been done at the farmers’ market. “It’s been a community project.” Though it is scheduled to be finished before you will read this, it will be hanging in the Trout and will eventually find a home in the community.

The Trout Museum of Art is open Monday-Saturday 10 AM – 4 PM and Sunday from noon – 4PM. Guided tours for groups can be arranged and a drop-in tour is conducted every Saturday from 11 AM – noon. info@troutmuseum.org or call (920) 733-4089.

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