Thursday, May 19, 2011

Living icon

"THE PROBLEM WE ALL LIVE WITH": The Rockwell painting that made Ruby Bridges iconic. Photo courtesy of Lisa McKeown/Tacoma Art Museum

Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges brings her story to Tacoma

JIM STAFFORD: The Chehalis resident is forever linked to Rockwell. Photo courtesy of Tacoma ArtMuseum.

The Weekly Volcano, May 19, 2011

There is no formula for creating an iconic image of an age or event. Certain images simply touch a nerve. Such is the case with Norman Rockwell's painting of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted by U.S. marshals into William Frantz Public School in New Orleans in 1960. It was not the first school to be desegregated, nor the most famous (that honor belongs to Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957), but Rockwell's painting stands as a major icon o
f the civil rights movement. And the little girl, now almost 60 years old, remains a civil rights activist.

Rockwell's painting of that historic event is on display at Tacoma Art Museum along with many other original Rockwell paintings and all of his Saturday Evening Post covers. Ruby Bridges will be at the University of Washington Tacoma Saturday, May 21, to speak about her life and about those tumultuous times.

 RUBY BRIDGES then and now. Photos courtesy of Tacoma Art Musum.

Rockwell's depiction of Bridges' brave walk to school, The Problem We All Live With, was his first assignment for Look magazine in 1963 after ending his 47-year working relationship with the Saturday Evening Post. The painting, along with another, Murder in Mississippi, was the start of a new era for Rockwell, when he chose to depict more socially conscious and sometimes controversial issues. According to a museum statement, letters to the editor in response to his artwork in Look were a mixed bag. Some complimented the work and expressed hope for the future while others called Rockwell's work "vicious, lying propaganda." Still, Rockwell felt that the young girl's story needed to be told. Fifty years later, her story is no less powerful.

It was a violent time, three years prior to the murder of Mississippi's NAACP field secretary, Medgar Evers, before the fire bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls and before the infamous murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.
Ruby's story

Bridges was born in Mississippi in 1954, the year the United States handed down its landmark decision ordering the integration of public schools. Before she started school her family moved to New Orleans, where her father worked as a service station attendant and her mother took night jobs to help support their growing family. "As I got a bit older," Bridges says on her website, "my job was to keep an eye on my younger brothers and sister, which wasn't too difficult. Except for church and the long walk to the all-black school where I went to kindergarten, our world didn't extend beyond our block."      

Suddenly her small world expanded. Under federal court order, New Orleans public schools were finally forced to desegregate - six years after segregation was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Bridges was chosen to be among a handful of black students to start first grade in New Orleans. She writes that her mother was all for it, but her father wasn't. She quotes him as saying, "We're just asking for trouble." He thought nothing was going to change, that blacks and whites would never be treated as equals. But her mother was excited that her daughter would have an opportunity to get a better education in the new school and a better chance for success later in life.

"My parents argued about it and prayed about it. Eventually my mother convinced my father that despite the risks, they had to take this step forward, not just for their own children, but for all black children," says Bridges

Six black children were chosen to integrate New Orleans public schools that day. Two of them backed out and the other three went to a different school. Ruby was the lone black student marching into William Frantz Public School. Federal marshals drove her to school. Her mother accompanied her.

"Mama had taught us about God, that he is always there to protect us. ‘Ruby Nell,' she said as we pulled up to my new school, ‘don't be afraid. There might be some people upset outside, but I'll be with you,'" recalls Bridges.

The crowd was noisy, but Bridges later recalls that "it wasn't any noisier than Mardi Gras."

She held her mother's hand and followed the marshals through the crowd and up the steps into the school. Her mother is not shown in Rockwell's painting. In the painting she is alone with two marshals in front and two behind. That is not a distortion of the facts, but is a depiction of a different day; the marshals had to continue escorting her into school day after day until they deemed it safe to let her enter alone. She didn't even go to class that first day. She spent the day in the principal's office while from outside white parents pointed and yelled at them, then rushed their children out of the school.

The next day she saw someone had a black doll in a coffin. She says that scared her. There were reprisals. Her father was fired from his job. The white owners of a grocery store told them not to shop there anymore. Even her grandparents in Mississippi were asked to move from the land they'd sharecropped for 25 years.

But there were supportive people as well, most significantly her new teacher, Mrs. Henry. At first, Mrs. Henry taught her alone in an otherwise empty classroom.

"The people I passed every morning as I walked up the school's steps were full of hate," says Bridges. "They were white, but so was my teacher, who couldn't have been more different from them. She was one of the most loving people I had ever known. The greatest lesson I learned that year in Mrs. Henry's class was the lesson Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tried to teach us all: Never judge people by the color of their skin."
The present

Bridges now teaches about racism through regular speaking engagements throughout the country and in Canada. In an article by Louise Elliot in the Toronto Star in 2000, Bridges insisted on telling her story to children only, without reporters present, "because she believes children are the only hope for stopping racism before bigotry has a chance to set in."

"We as adults have to create the environment that brings us all together," Bridges says. "Children can do something that we adults haven't been able to get past yet. They can change the world."

"There is much we can learn from Ruby Bridges," says TAM Director Stephanie A. Stebich. "Her courage as a first-grader helped to change this country. Her continuing message of hope and community is truly inspiring."

Museum curator Margaret Bullock says Rockwell's commissions for Look left most of the content and subject matter up to the artist. "Having been given almost complete autonomy for his first subject, Rockwell chose desegregation as vivified in the story of a young African-American girl he had never met, and whose name he did not even know. ... Rockwell's impetus to paint The Problem We All Live With came from a passage in John Steinbeck's book Travels with Charlie.

Steinbeck wrote: "The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white. The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big."
The window washer

Bridges is not the only living subject of a Rockwell magazine cover who has visited Tacoma during the run of the Rockwell exhibit. Jim Stafford has also made the trip. Stafford, a sculptor who lives in Chehalis, posed as the window washer for Rockwell's September 17, 1960, cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Stafford grew up just west of Chehalis. In 1960 he was a young soldier stationed at what was then Fort Devens, west of Boston, Mass. Stafford was an artist and an admirer of Rockwell. He wrote a letter to Rockwell and was surprised when Rockwell wrote back. It turned out that they had some common friends in the art world and Rockwell invited Stafford to come out to his home in Stockbridge. Stafford said he took a friend with him to visit the artist. Rockwell picked them up at the train station. "I did a little sketching while I was there," Stafford says. "And he critiqued it. He finally looked at me and said, ‘You'll do.'"

At first, Stafford didn't know what he meant, so he asked him and Rockwell explained that he wanted him to pose for a cover. "I posed outside his studio window while a press photographer took pictures of me from the inside," says Stafford. "Rockwell stood behind the photographer, twisting his face in the best ‘winking' animation he could muster."

The painting pictured a business executive at his desk with a pert, redheaded secretary taking dictation. Behind them is a window washer winking flirtatiously at the secretary, who seems more interested in the window washer than in her boss. Stafford got $30 for his work as a model, and Rockwell tried to line him up with a date with the young woman who posed as the secretary in the picture. Stafford and Rockwell remained friends and continued their correspondence over the years.

"It was a glorious time," says Stafford. "Rockwell was more than an illustrator. His work was always art first. He composed each work to tell a story and could capture the essence of a person."

He says Steven Spielberg now owns the painting.

Stafford later had a career in commercial art and got an MFA in Sculpture and has worked as a sculptor for more than 40 years in his studio near Chehalis.
Painting method

Another local connection with the Norman Rockwell exhibition is painter Peter Sheesley who has recreated Rockwell's artistic methods in painting demonstrations at the museum. He led a painting workshop on May 14 and 15 teaching others the process by which Rockwell worked. The workshop focused on painting genre scenes from photographs.

Sheesley graduated from the New York Academy of Art in 2004 with an MFA in Figurative Painting. "In graduate school we studied artistic anatomy, painting and drawing from life, history and techniques, among other academic approaches to making figurative art." Sheesley says. "Rockwell's artistic training at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League of New York City likely had similarities. Like Rockwell, I'm interested in telling a story through people in my work. I find Rockwell's work interesting for its iconic depiction of historical details and evocative idealism. My own work doesn't have this emphasis - it's more of a personal response to life - but I am learning from Rockwell's working methods. I'm finding his at-size, fully-tonal preparatory drawing phase to be especially important. Ever since I delighted in the visual gags of Rockwell's Post covers on my grandparent's bathroom wallpaper as a kid, I have appreciated Rockwell's ability to make his depictions both completely believable and completely his own."

Sheesley taught college art classes in drawing and painting at a few colleges in the Midwest for three years. "I decided that being a college art professor is not for me right now, and moved to the West Coast to start a portrait painting business," Sheesley says. He's been living and working as a portrait artist in Centralia for a little over a year.
See It

Ruby Bridges will be at the University of Washington-Tacoma Saturday, May 21, at 2 p.m. A book signing with Bridges will follow the event. The event is sponsored by KeyBank and Eisenhower & Carlson.

American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell runs through May 30 at Tacoma Art Museum. To read Weekly Volcano art critic Alec Clayton's review of the show, click here.

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