Rockwell Reinventor Tours New Freedoms
By Christophor McDermott, BERKSHIRE RECORD • MARCH 23-29. 2018
'Freedom From What?' by Pops Peterson, a reimagining of Rockwell's 'Freedom from Fear.'
Before he was Artist in Residence at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Pops Peterson had never planned to be involved in civil rights work. But he says life and circumstances led him to feel "drafted" into action.
Known in the area for his works emulating the Berkshire County icon Norman Rockwell, Peterson' s image "Freedom from What" will be going on tour as part of a larger traveling exhibit, "Enduring Ideals: Rockwell , Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms," which opens in New York City in May. It will then travel the world before concluding in Normandy , France.
Peterson's works in his "Reinventing Rockwell" series emulate the iconic illustrator's style while tackling contemporary issues of diversity, social justice and what it means to be American. He received a civil rights award in 2015 at the Annual Fair Housing and Civil Rights Conference in Springfield for the works, which have also been featured in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
"I wanted to show that women can be in uniform, to show that there are people of color living in the neighborhood," Peterson said. "We're talking not just about Stockbridge but the American landscape. Rockwell is Mr. America. You think of the American homeland and you think of a Norman Rockwell picture. And [for most of Rockwell's career] that was all white people except there might be a maid or a train conductor who's black."
In one work. "The Education of Will Cisneros," Peterson reimagines Rockwell's image "Willie Gillis in College," replacing the white veteran returning from World WW II with a veteran of color returning from Afghanistan. In the lower corner of Peterson's illustration we see that Cisneros' right leg is a prosthetic and that he has a prescription bottle.
"I'm not focusing on this disability," Peterson said. "I'm trying to show someone who has made bis sacrifice for his country and now has a full life. He goes to college, he rides a bike, he plays guitar, here 's his Purple Heart."
Another of his works, "Freedom from Shame," depicts a young hockey player triumphant in the locker room with champagne running down his face and standing completely unselfconscious to have a missing segment of his arm. The work was part of a continuing relationship between Peterson and the Massachusetts Office on Disability.
In Rockwell's later years, he also forayed into civil rights-focused artwork, Peterson said. Particularly with his iconic 1964 painting "The Problem We All Live With" which depicts Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl, walking to a white school during the New Orleans desegregation crisis as she is barraged with graffiti and rotten fruit .
Peterson's answer to "The Problem We All Live With" is "The Problem Persists," which shows Bridges walking through wreckage, in Ferguson, fifty years after the original image appeared.
Peterson's work begins with photos, then he uses digital tools and hand drawing to make them look more like paintings and give them his unique unique style. He works at a studio space on the border of West Stockbridge and New York, for which be was given keys by a friend, Rob Grien. who also appeared in Peterson's image "Freedom from Discrimination."
Pops Peterson stands before his artworks emulating Norman Rockwell for today .
Peterson lives in Hillsdale, New York, and with his husband Mark Johnson, owns and operates the business SEVEN salon.spa. The spa is located just across the street from Rockwell's Stockbridge residence. Peterson said be never expected to be an advocate for civil rights in his adult life. His earliest memories of news stories were about civil rights marches and Martin Luther King, Jr. being assassinated. His parents had marched and had brought him as a young boy to demonstrations.
"Having gone through the civil rights era, the last thing I ever wanted to think about again was civil rights: who can I associate with, where can I get lunch, where can I go to the movie. I thought: that is in the past. I am done. Done. Done . l am not marching anymore. No more meetings," Peterson said. "It worked. We had a Black president."
But Peterson said he felt that he was "drafted" to do more of this work .
Ho and Major General Joseph A. McNeil received the same award at the 2015 ceremony. Peterson said he was [in] awe, remembering that McNeil was one of the first students in 1960 to sit in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina .
"He didn't know if he'd be able to finish school," Peterson said of McNeil's protest. "He didn't know if he'd go to jail. He just had had enough. He said I'm going to sit here until you serve me.''
And Peterson remembered being an eight-year-old boy in New York City at about the same time, brought by his mother to protest their own local Woolworth.
"They didn't give me the award to stop," Peterson said. "l was drafted, and I've been trying to live up to that ever since."
His works emulating Rockwell have helped him to refine his technical artistry, Peterson said, and now he's focusing increasngly on his own original style. More recently, he said he's felt compelled by stories of unarmed African-Americans being killed in encounters with police or armed civilians. He began works that took the faces of the Black men and women killed with quotes from their lives written over them. He made images of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride and Christian Taylor, but then bad to stop. he said, "because there was always one more."
Two of Peterson's works are at the Pittsfield Colonial Theatre's Press for Progress exhibit, honoring International Woman's.Day, and four more are on display in Hotel On North in Pittsfield. On April 13, he'll be appearing at the National Conference for Fair Housing and Civil Rights in Springfield. In addition to having "Freedom from What" featured in the coming tour around Rockwell 's Four Freedoms, Peterson was also a juror for the tour's other selections, which he said was an honor.
Peterson said he's been grateful for the support he's felt from people in the Berkshires that have made this possible for him by commissioning works and inviting him into their communities.
"I've had so many people offering me their land, their home, their children, their props, their time. I am a product of that."