Celebrating the Works of Norman Rockwell at the Tacoma Art Museum

The Tacoma Art Museum is celebrating a momentous occasion with a popular exhibit of Norman Rockwell pieces. Northwest Public Radio's Lynn Olson Reports.

It’s a ticket to see the works of a man who indelibly touched a society simply by reflection.  American Chronicles: The Art of Normal Rockwell.  The Tacoma Art Museum is the exhibit’s only Northwest stop on a major national tour.  The museum needed something pretty special to celebrate a major demarcation in time as an important community staple. 

Director Stephanie Stevich: “These are Rockwell’s rock wells, so they come from the Rockwell Museum, an institution that he helped found and he contributed major works that he had saved that were important to him.” 

Rockwell’s painting showed his adoration of the American experience.  The hearts imply to people in what could be any American town are layered onto canvas.  As the museum celebrates its 75-year legacy of connecting and building community through art, Stevich says committing to the exhibit made so much sense.

Stevich:“Rockwell fit the bill because we believe he speaks to all generations, that his message is around American values, are important for our military communities and our immigrant communities..”

Two galleries host 44 paintings and 323 original Saturday Evening Post covers.  Curator on the project, Margaret Bullock hopes people will come to understand that the post covers were major works before ink ever set to paper. 

Bullock: “That it wasn’t this little 8x10 artwork that he kind of did in an instant.  It’s a full scale oil painting where it started and it took serious time for every one of those images…” 

He’s part of our popular consciousness says Bullock, and attendance shows it. 

Bullcock: “I’ve seen contemporary artists; I’ve seen young people, older people, everybody in between.” 

Boy Scout Luke Embalds pondered the 50-year old paintings with a sense of familiarity in common with his dad and grandpa, who walked the galleries with him.  Luke has seen the pictures in a magazine called Boy’s Life.

Embalds: “I think some of them are kind of funny, like humorous and some of are like serious.” 

Bullock says the showing is receiving an exuberant response. “They just love it.  They love him. It’s been great.  We’re collecting a million Norman Rockwell stories.  We’ve had a man come in on a group tour already who was one of his models.” 

That model is Jim Stafford; a sculptor and chemical patina developer in Chehalis, WA who was on a tour of the exhibit when his wife did a little bragging to docent Linda Flatley. “Who then showed us a picture of the cover that he was on and it was ‘The Window Washer’.” 

It was a young man’s career contemplation(s) that led to the Rockwell encounter.  As an aspiring commercial artist on leave from the army, Stafford ventured a call to Rockwell seeking an audience.  Surprisingly, the painter said sure and they hit it off. 

Stafford: “It was a long time ago, but I still relive it almost every day especially looking at the framed picture on the post cover here and a couple letters I got from him.  It’s a great memory.” 

What went into bringing those Rockwell memories alive in the Pacific Northwest?  Like Jim, museum director Stevich simply asked when she shared a taxi with the Rockwell Museum director. 

Stevich: “And I turned to her and I said, ‘Do you ever travel with your Rockwells?’ and she turned to me and she said, ‘Well you’re in luck, actually, we’re just planning a major national tour.” 

A museum that wins such an exhibit sees itself as having a chance to change lives. 

Stevich: “Sounds pretty ambitious, but we do that by hearing the stories and yet we also need to tell the stories of the Northwest.  We need to tell the stories of our own identity.” 

The man who won the presidential Medal of Freedom for vivid and affectionate portraits of our country, illuminates the walls of a regional art museum, enriching its community with the canvas of Northwest life.  It’s a chance to go home, but also to experience an approachable art facility with monumental heart.