Life According to The Great Norman Rockwell, and Me

NormanOver twenty years ago I made an extravagant purchase as a surprise gift for my newlywed hubby. It was a huge volume published in 1978 titled “Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers” featuring some of his most famous works in large format.

I bought it at a used bookstore for $75 when we didn’t have $75 to spend on a book—or anything for that matter.

But I couldn’t help myself.

We both loved Rockwell’s work and, with my husband being an aspiring artist and I being an aspiring writer, we had great ambition to be creative storytellers within our respective mediums—just like Norman.

Who knew many years later I would be lucky enough to stand in front of a collection of original Norman Rockwell works with my jaw on the floor and tears in my eyes. The BYU Museum of Art recently featured a retrospective exhibition on Rockwell, which included many paintings, drawings, sketches, and five decades of printed covers from “The Saturday Evening Post” magazine.

As I perused the gallery at a ponderous pace that frustrated my children, I was in absolute awe. Each piece was a masterwork of application, concept and color created by a genius, who managed to be simultaneously meticulous and prolific—a rare artistic combination.

His paintings and the stories they told were profound yet simple, idealized yet honest, serious yet humorous, and timely yet timeless. He portrayed everyday American life from simple scenes of human relationships and happenings to complex, controversial social and political issues and figures—all with gracious finesse.

When asked how he came up with ideas Rockwell explained, “I’d just keep my ear to the wind and, when I heard of a craze or fad or anything which everyone was talking about, I’d do a cover of it.”

elmvilleFor example, he created a cover in 1929 featuring a sheriff crouching behind a town welcome sign while holding a stopwatch to clock the speed of passing cars. It was titled “Welcome to Elmville” and addressed the trend of towns hiring police to set up speed traps for collecting heavy fines as revenue rather than impose new taxes on residents.

When I came across this painting and its explanation in the show, it caught my particular interest. Ironically, I’d just been considering writing a piece about a suspiciously similar situation currently going on in our neck of the woods between a lucrative small town cop and a disgruntled senator, who’s probably dropped a chunk of change in traffic tickets from speeding on his way to the state capital building.

Art truly does reflect life and, as Norman did with paint, I try to do with words.

People often ask me how I come up with ideas to write about (usually those who know how ordinary and boring my life is). Like Norman, I just keep my eyes and ears open—and a pen and notebook in my purse—and collect little nuggets of life to elaborate about, because the ordinary is actually quite fascinating when depicted cleverly.

Or as Norman put it, “Without thinking to much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”

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