Norman Rockwell illustrated American life for almost half a century on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Idyllic and anodyne, his portraits of small-town life in the 1930s and 1940s formed part of the iconic mythos of how may Americans wanted to see themselves.
Over the course of four days last week, students at Camp Verde’s schools got to immerse themselves in those iconic images, and to see beyond them as well — for as the roiling 1960s replaced the complacent 1950s, Rockwell drew outside of the small frame he had set around himself.
By then, he had ended his association with The Saturday Evening Post and had begun working for Look magazine.
In 1964, Rockwell painted an illustration titled, “The Problem We All Live With.”
Inspired by the story of Ruby Bridges, the first black child to desegregate an elementary school in New Orleans, the painting shows the young child escorted by four marching federal marshals, walking by a wall with “KKK” and a racial epithet scrawled on it.
“You can see everything that was 1964 America right there, staring you in the face,” said Thomas Daly, curator of education at the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, Mass., who came to Camp Verde last week.
“The image told that story. You were reminded that young people were going through this: that you needed protection for a 6-year-old girl to go to school,” Daly said.
Daly said that Rockwell’s own image suffered because of the stance he took with that painting.
“When Rockwell had that published in Look magazine, he received bags of letters accusing him of all sorts of horrible things,” Daly said. “And of being a race-mixer, and it was awful that Norman Rockwell could drag his own name through the mud. And he persevered, and said, ‘this is how I feel.’”
On the last day of Daly’s visit, Friday, March 30, he brought a special visitor with him to meet Camp Verde’s Middle School students: Wray Gunn.
Gunn’s cousin, Tracie, was the model for the young black girl in “The Problem We All Live With.”
In 1967, a then 12-year-old Gunn joined his cousin on the long list of Stockbridge, Mass., natives who had modeled for Rockwell illustrations.
That painting, “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” showed two black children in front of a moving van on a suburban Chicago street. Across from them stand a curious and ambivalent group of white children.
Gunn said that growing up in northern Massachusetts, he never felt like the outsider portrayed in the painting, but that knowing Rockwell and seeing the painting now had an impact on him.
“The meaning of the painting, not only this one, but all of his paintings — I mean to know this man as long as I did and not know actually who he was, but I knew what he was,” Gunn said. “But to see it now and get the meaning behind all of his paintings — now it’s like I’m learning everything I can about this
man, because I knew him, and there’s so much to know. This man is known worldwide, not just in Stockbridge and Vermont and New York State — he’s known worldwide, which is amazing.”
Gunn and Daly both said they were enthusiastic about connecting to young people.
Daly went to drama, photography and art classes, speaking to students from kindergarten to high school. He explained the enthusiasm kids of all ages have for Rockwell.
“I think it’s the opportunity to see that you are a part of that picture, that the changes that are happening in your life and the unique situations that you believe might just be happening to you are actually happening to everyone,” Daly said.
After the middle school assembly with Gunn, where a number of Rockwell paintings where shown, one student seemed to echo those sentiments.
“My favorite picture was the girl sitting in front of the mirror,” sixth-grader Cariana Majors said. “I could sort of relate to her, because I would like to grow up to be someone that I admire the most and she wanted to grow up to be that.”