painting with a cluster of people of different races, genders, ages looking at the viewer

Lecture Recap: Curators & Artist Discuss Rockwell Exhibition

On July 7, 2020, Gates Family Foundation Curator Timothy J. Standring, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Norman Rockwell Museum Stephanie Plunkett, and artist Pops Peterson (whose work Freedom from What? (I Can’t Breathe) is on view in the exhibition), convened over Zoom to discuss the life, art, and mysteries of iconic American illustrator Norman Rockwell, and how the themes discussed in the exhibition Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom still resonate today.

While hosting programs over Zoom is a new experience for the DAM, the panel, introduced by Stefania Van Dyke, Associate Director of Interpretive Engagement, soon settled into an easy conversation that allowed for insightful discussion and fun banter between them. As I watched the three converse over my laptop, I was struck by a few moments, which I’ve collected here.

Pops Peterson Shares his Work

“I had this idea to redo Norman Rockwell’s work as if he was walking around Stockbridge and doing the same things today,” Peterson explained as his picture, Freedom from What? (I Can’t Breathe) flashed on screen, next to Rockwell’s Freedom From Fear. “But I wanted to put my own spin on it.”

Peterson’s picture captures a moment in time that has remained relevant since he painted it. He said, “The headline had to be ‘I Can’t Breathe’ because it said so much, and was so illustrative of what was going on at that moment. I wanted to mark that moment in time.”

Six years later, as we continue to grapple with racial justice issues, Peterson’s work and sentiment carry through to the present moment.

‘Just an Illustrator’

One of the most engaging moments of discussion happened between the panel about Rockwell’s identity as an illustrator. Rockwell considered himself an illustrator, above being a fine artist.

Plunkett explained, “I know we keep using the terminology ‘just an illustrator’ but illustration is such an extraordinarily powerful art form because it reaches the masses. In fact, Rockwell really believed that he was, at heart, a visual storyteller... Rockwell loved his field, and he was not ashamed of it... illustration has established cultural narratives.”

For Peterson, it’s all about emotion. “Until the sixties, I don’t think there’s one of his pictures that makes you want to cry, or want to scream, or make you feel angry... once he allowed that full range of expression, that’s when he really came into his own, and started feeling like an artist.”

map and information about the 1943 War Bond tour of the Four Freedoms
This map illustrates the 16 cities (including Denver) that were tour stops for the 1943 Four Freedoms War Bond Show.

The Denver Art Museum’s Presentation of Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom

The process of planning this exhibition at the Denver Art Museum began back in 2017. Van Dyke shared that “The exhibition development team—including curator, educator, project manager, designer(s), and curatorial assistant—convenes generally 18 months before opening to start the process in earnest.”

Standring provided an overview of the themes in the exhibition, noting “We thought that this would be the perfect exhibition to encourage civil discourse throughout the community.” Not only do Rockwell’s works, particularly those painted during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, reflect this desire to engage in meaningful dialogue, but the exhibition team decided to include questions throughout the exhibition to encourage visitors to think critically about the themes that permeate the exhibition.

The questions included: “Privilege... has anything changed?” and “Racism... has anything changed?” Most of the exhibition focus on Rockwell’s life and trajectory of his paintings, while the final part of the exhibition features works by contemporary artists, including Pops Peterson, in dialogue about the issues that Rockwell tackled in his work.

More Questions & Answers

The discussion between the panelists prompted many visitors to ask several thoughtful questions, some of which are recorded here with the answers.

What were the restrictions around depicting people of color [in magazines]? When was it lifted?

Plunkett: “Rockwell working for a commercial publication... The Saturday Evening Post had a particular audience, a white middle class audience... There was an unwritten rule that prevented illustrators from depicting people of color in anything other than a subservient role. So, you could paint someone as a maid, but you couldn’t paint them as a doctor. Rockwell, and other illustrators, railed against that. The problem for them was that the magazines were the vehicles for their work. They were always trying to negotiate a way to work with or around that. When he left the Post in ‘63, that was really where he was able to, in his mind, correct the editorial restrictions that he had been under for so many years. He went to Look magazine, where they had a different point of view.

Pops, how long does it take to complete a picture? What does your process look like? Where can we see more of your work?

Peterson: “I’ll start with where you can see more of my work... I’m delighted to say... I will have a dozen pictures in the Rockwell show when it returns to Stockbridge... aside from that you can visit my website. As for how long it can take, some of them I can do and get it done in a few months, but I’ve spent as long as 5 or 6 years working on one of the images... I basically shoot everything in the space of an hour or two but I have to get props, and I have to get models, I have to get locations, usually, all of these things have to happen and then it takes me a while to put it together. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Van Dyke: “Your work really adds to that... allows that dialogue to happen in our gallery that shows the power of art and how much it can move people, and perhaps move them to action.”

Peterson: “Every little bit helps... It’s the actions you take in your daily life that make the biggest impact. Just try to be kind somebody, try to understand somebody, try to help somebody, try to reach out. If everyone has just a little more of that spirit, eventually we’d be living in paradise.”

Image at top: Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), The Right To Know, 1968. Oil on canvas, 29” x 54”. Illustration for Look, August 20, 1968. Private Collection. ©Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.

Zoe Diaz-McLeese is the membership marketing associate at the Denver Art Museum. She joined the marketing team in 2019, and her favorite work on view is The Way the Moon’s in Love with the Dark by Fred Wilson in The Light Show.