When you’re a visual artist and you happen to be the son of someone like Norman Rockwell– the illustrator whose famous covers for the Saturday Evening Post and for the Boy Scouts of America all but define our idealized vision of who we are as Americans — it can’t be easy. The name “Rockwell” itself has come to mean something very immediate, very specific, and very much associated with one person of that clan: Norman. Living your life as the “son of” someone that iconic, one can only assume, must be both a claim to fame, and something that defines you whether you like it or not.
Norman Rockwell was the father of three sons, however, each immensely talented in his own right. Jarvis is a visual artist, Thomas a writer, and Peter, a sculptor.
Given their last name, you might make certain assumptions about their work. However, you’d be wrong. The artistic work of the three “other” Rockwells, the sons, couldn’t be more unique from the apple tree they fell from — or more self-defining.
You can get a sense of just how fully original and self-actualized the career of the eldest son, Jarvis, has been, by visiting a retrospective of his work, currently on exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts until October 20. The exhibit, “Jarvis Rockwell: Maya, Illusion, and Us” is far reaching, compelling, and challenging. Jarvis generously gave a private tour of the exhibit and spoke at length with Disney Dads for this piece.
One can’t help reminding him or herself constantly when in the presence of Jarvis that he is a “Rockwell.” That in and of itself feels weighty. But speaking with Jarvis, one quickly realizes that being the son of Norman was a starting point, and not nearly the end of the story.
Jarvis’ work did start out remarkably close to his father’s style. In the 50s, he was drawing realist portraits, capturing expression and detail with a remarkable confidence for a young man of that age. One can clearly look at Jarvis’ early work and see a Norman influence, a competency and talent.
But then Jarvis grew into his own and set sail on his own artistic journey.
According to Jarvis, Norman Rockwell was the kind of dad anyone would hope to have or to be — he was supportive, but not controlling. “My father was always very interested in my work,” says Jarvis, “but he didn’t force me, and he didn’t force my style. He took a real interest, but stayed out of things.”
The wildly expansive mind that Jarvis uses to see the world and translate it into visual work speaks directly to his being a product of this kind of parenting: dad clearly fostered and nurtured him, but didn’t steer, didn’t mold.
Jarvis’ artistic path diverged dramatically from what is considered “Rockwellian” as he reached adulthood. He moved to San Francisco. He started doing what he calls “Spilled Colored Inks Chaos.” From the random chaos of spilled ink, Jarvis would, as he describes, “sketch into the blank space and pull things out — creatures and the worlds they inhabit.” The pencil sketches are complex, mathematical almost — the hours and hours spent within the consciousness of these created universes are unmistakable. Says Jarvis, “If you’re honest as an artist, you spend alot of time reaching out and you have no idea what you’ll grab.” By this definition he is clearly an honest artist.
His work then got even more abstract. He moved from the spilled paint to dioramas of domestic scenes constructed with disfigured or deconstructed action figures. Then he moved into intricately assembled collages of found objects combined with heady sketches, to his well-known “Pyramids” built out of action figures and toys he’s been collecting since the early 80s.
As Jarvis shows me around the exhibit and discusses the work, it’s as if he is experiencing it for the first time. He is filled with wonder, as if he himself didn’t create them, but somehow admires the way they came through him as a vessel (even though he probably wouldn’t use those words himself.) “I really like this drawing!” he says, with a grin and a twinkle in his eyes. He’s one part Peter Pan, one part aesthete.
Each little figurine among hundreds upon hundreds of them delight him in its own way. As he points to cheap plastic Smurfs or vaguely weathered super heroes or Star Wars memorabila, he says, quietly, reverently, “They’re really extraordinary, just look at their faces. These are the things that inform our lives. All these little things that our civilization makes and then throws away, they all represent human thought.”
Then he digresses, speaks of Quantum Mechanics, and heaven, and chaos, and beauty. Jarvis’s thoughts and mind exist on an extraordinary intellectual plane — he is gracious, kind, brilliant and abstract.
He finishes by pointing out some pieces he drew “just to see if after all this previous work I could still draw. And I discovered I could. That was a big relief.”
“Jarvis Rockwell: Maya, Illusion, and Us” is on exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum until October 20, 2013. For more information visit www.nrm.org.
(Image: Reference photo for Norman Rockwell’s “Casey at the Bat,” 1950. Left to right: Norman Rockwell, Jarvis Rockwell, and Tom Rockwell. Norman Rockwell Archival Collections. ©Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.)