Norman Rockwell, more than any other American artist-illustrator, effectively captured drama in the lifestyle of common people doing common, ordinary things. Sometimes his illustrations made people laugh, sometimes cry, but viewing those creative images made people feel good about life in this country. He described himself as a visual storyteller.
I never realized the strong impact of Rockwell’s artistry until I studied his life and started a series of storytelling programs at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on that very special life. The series of programs, currently scheduled every Saturday, ties in with an exhibition of Norman Rockwell works at the Library.
Responses from the full-theater audiences and comments from individuals following the presentations made me realize what a great influence this man and his talents had on the people of this nation over the past seven decades. He acquired this power with the creative use of paint brushes and charcoals. And his heroes, championed in about 4,000 illustrations, were common people.
Several aspects of his life really seemed to surprise my audiences. For example, when Rockwell was a boy he was constantly recognized for his outstanding ability at drawing pictures, but that’s not what he wanted most at that point in his life. His greatest desire was to be a good athlete. He particularly wanted to excel in baseball, because the most successful and popular boys in his school and neighborhood were good at baseball.
His body, however, was not athletically suited by any stretch of the imagination. He was tall and skinny, had very narrow shoulders and a disproportionately long neck with a protruding adams apple. He was awkward, poorly coordinated and pigeoned-toed. He had to wear corrective shoes by age 10, glasses by 12.
After a gallant effort to excel in sports, he finally realized he was just not suited for sports activities and decided to concentrate on becoming an accomplished artist.
At age 22, while creating illustrations for Boys Life magazine, he decided to raise his sights and try for assignments to create illustrations for the biggest, most popular magazine in the country at that time - the Saturday Evening Post. When he received a letter from the Post agreeing to interview him, he was really excited. He didn’t have any idea how to prepare for such a high-level interview, but he just knew he wanted to impress that Post art director in any way he could.
He thought if he had a large, important looking art portfolio case it might be impressive. So he asked a friend -- a fledgling carpenter -- to make a special wooden portfolio case for him. When it was completed it was impressive all right. It was much larger than it needed to be. It looked more like a small coffin than an art portfolio case.
But he put his best sample sketches into that huge case and carried it to his appointment with the Post art director. As he walked into his office, the art director stared at that big case for a moment, then looked up at Rockwell and said, "Young man, I hope you don’t have a body in that coffin your bringing in here."
Rockwell was embarrassed, of course - but not for long. As he started pulling his sketches out of that case, the art director was very impressed with what he saw. So much so that before Rockwell left that office he had an assignment to create several illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post.
His first Post cover illustration was carried on the issue of May, 1916. That was the first of over 300 covers illustrated by Rockwell, and started a 47 year working relationship. The Rockwell covers became so popular, sales of the magazine increased by about 250,000 copies every time one was featured.
Rockwell worked extensively with models when developing a new illustration. He would line up models, costumes and props, representing each segment of a new sketch - then have the scene photographed from several angles. He had a very special and effective way of working with models.
I learned about this immediately after completing my first Rockwell storytelling program at the Reagan Library. An attractive woman, appearing to be in her 60s, approach me, introducing herself as Joyce from Thousand Oaks. She said both she and her mother modeled for Rockwell many years ago and showed me a Rockwell illustration where both of them were featured. She was an 8-year-old girl at the time.
"When we went to the studio for our modeling assignment, Rockwell didn’t start working immediately," Joyce said. "He just sat there visiting and telling us stories for quite a while. By the time we started modeling, we felt very comfortable, like we’d known Rockwell for many years. It was a very pleasant experience."
Shortly before Rockwell died in 1978, he was visiting with a good friend. He said, "An artist like me gets out of his work exactly what he puts into it. If you’re really interested in the characters you’re drawing - if you truly understand and love them - then the people who look at your sketches will feel the same way about them."
C. 2001 Jim Woodard is a storyteller-writer from Ventura. He is the featured storyteller at the Reagan Presidential Library and presents programs for a variety of audiences - adults and youths. He can be contacted at his Ventura office, phone 658-6697. E-mail: Storyjim@storyteller.net