You only have a few days to get to The Dayton Art Institute or you’re going to miss something surprisingly evocative and just plain cool.
Until recently, my idea of Norman Rockwell was a memory of images painted on dishes displayed in my granny and grandpa’s dining room cabinet. Those images were cutsey, small-town Americana and very, very quaint.
My Norman Rockwell has changed an awful lot.
When I first visited the exhibit “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell,” I was surprised to learn this iconic American artist was a progressive thinker. To be honest, I had no idea he created a body of work addressing such issues as desegregation, civil rights and poverty. I admit I was stunned when standing in front of The Problem We All Live With, a recreation of the walk 6-year-old Ruby Bridges took as a first-grade student and the first African American to attend a previously all-white school in New Orleans. This was not only because of the powerful imagery but because I had not expected to see this ― feel this ― in a Norman Rockwell exhibit. I had trouble breaking myself away from Murder in Mississippi, Rockwell’s depiction of the murders of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., during the civil rights era. I was late for a meeting (OK, really late) but I really didn’t care. These paintings!
I had the same intense feeling ― you know, when you think a wooly worm is crawling along your spine ― when hearing that same Ruby Bridges Rockwell painted years ago tell a packed auditorium at The Art Institute about her experience and emotions that November day as she and her mother, riding in a car with federal marshals, made their way to her new school. (Tangent: Check out Bridges’ book, Through My Eyes, if you get a chance.)
And there were more surprises. Bridges’ parents were not activists. They simply wanted a better life for their daughter, which is why they answered when the NAACP knocked on their door. Bridges used her imagination to decipher what was happening during those days when she unknowingly was making history. Since she had been one of only six African American children to pass a test engineered for them to fail, Bridges thought she was so smart she was going to college. Since her neighbors walked alongside the car that drove her to her first grade class, she thought she was in a Mardi Gras parade. Bridges said the worst thing about first grade was being lonely, as nearly all the white families had withdrawn their children from the school. She revealed the horror of walking by white protestors holding an infant’s coffin containing a black doll, constant threats that she would be poisoned, the schoolboy who told Bridges his mother insisted he not play with her and the weight she felt lifted off her shoulders upon hearing that comment because, finally, she knew what was going on. She knew it was about color, the color of her skin.