How I Re-Discovered America


I refuse to allow the Visual Arts Center to be shut down for the following reason:

As I strolled through Panama City Visual Arts Center’s “In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America” exhibit, a heard a woman behind me sigh and say, “Those were the days.” The woman’s voice expressed enough nostalgic longing that I just had to turn around and see for myself what she saw that made those days differ so much from these. The piece was a simple one; Three Boys Fishing, depicting three carefree and shirtless boys hanging over a log to fish. I looked at it, myself never once hanging over a log to fish in my entire life, and somehow I understood what she meant: those really were the days.

I was not born in the fifties or the sixties or even the seventies, but I am fortunate to have a clear image of those venerable decades in my mind. When I imagine those days, I see a time quiet with simplicity, a time when everyone knew each other, when boxcar races were town-wide events and a rookie baseball card was considered gold. All this may sound a bit “aw-shucks”-ish, and may, very well not even be true, but for me, I’ve always likened it as the era of simple happiness. Touring the exhibit, what I saw was the true representation of an era I could only imagine, the very same images that made a woman who gazed into a painting, pine for a time gone.

The Visual Arts Center’s “In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America” exhibit displays a collection of Rockwell’s works. Rockwell, a twentieth century illustrator who found acclaim for his iconic Saturday Evening Post covers, created a multitude of drawings, paintings, photographs, and studies that echo his life’s progression as well as his intimate fascination with the fabric of American lives. Although, throughout his career he was not considered a “gallery” artist, his works have, in time, become invaluable pieces of American history.

rockwell_speechIn Rockwell paintings and illustrations, I found, that these are not images, but stories—literal snapshots of the American tale. With amazing detail and composition, portrayals of ordinary, everyday life take on the character of the time. You see lots of images of people playing baseball, kids fishing with fathers, mothers leaning over stove tops, golfers, police officers in diners, teachers, pets, politicians and all sorts of people just doing things, caring for things or making things. It’s all quite ordinary, but within that familiarity exists a powerful quality of Americana, a sort of celebration of ordinary America. Illustrations like Freedom of Speech (above left) and The Problem We All Live With really encompass those ideals. My personal all time favorite NR painting has always been the Saturday Evening Post cover called, After The Prom. The piece depicts two teens at a diner just after what looks like their first prom. The image is tender and simple, but always drew my attention beyond the giddy smiles and lighthearted portrayal. I’d never been able to understand why I was so drawn to that particular painting until I walked the Visual Art Center’s exhibit.

afterpromYou see, at first glance, none of Norman Rockwell’s works seem relevant to my generation; the generation of instant gratification, of Twitter, iPhone and full conversations in shorthand. And then I took a second look at After the Prom. The Prom is the American tradition, among so many seemingly faded traditions portrayed in NR’s works, whose magic time had not stifled. The same gleeful smirk widening the face of the boy character and the charmed expression in the girl character will still been seen at the next Prom night on just about every teen in every American city. The more I studied the other paintings and illustrations, the more I realized that these works, on the surface, appeared old-fashioned, but resonate still the parallel of the American story, perhaps more so now during our current social and economic woes. For that very reason, before I left the Visual Arts Center, I left as big a donation as my menial pockets could muster.

I don’t believe it a coincidence that the Visual Arts Center decided to showcase Norman Rockwell on what may very well be one of its last shows. Rockwell painted and spoke honorably about the ordinary places and things that we have a tendency to neglect when we tire of them. In my generation everything must sparkle or vibrate or play an insanely loud “Lady GaGa” ringtone to get my attention. We are so often barraged by prismatic commercials and flashy myspace pages, that we can’t see the wonders of the ordinary.

If the Visual Art Center shuts down, I believe, we’ll be losing exactly the thing Norman Rockwell tried to capture, the simple glimpses of ordinary America. I encourage every person who reads this to drive to downtown Panama City and park your car. Spend the afternoon strolling through some of the antique stores, maybe grab a hot dog and a coke from Tom’s, and then head over to the Visual Arts Center to see the exhibit. You don’t have to give a big donation, only step inside to see Rockwell’s American works and understand that the best way to truly understand those days is to celebrate these. Support the Visual Arts Center if for nothing else, its ability to keep us linked to the ordinary.

Rockwell said himself, “The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art. Boys batting flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight, umbrellas in hand — all of these things arouse feeling in me. Commonplaces never become tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious and appreciative.”

“In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America” will run from June 12th – August 9th. Ticket prices are $10.00 for adults, $8.00 for seniors and military and $5.00 for kids.

For more information go to or call 850.769.4451

In Search of Norman Rockwell's America

Amid threat of closure, the Visual Arts Center of Panama City is moving forward with the exhibit In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America.  I love Rockwell as I have a nostalgic affinity of the 40’s and 50’s.  Of course, during that time period, having only been a glimmer in my parent’s eye, I only have to go off the depictions found in books and the movies.  But, I hear it was a great time, a time when the American Dream, was The American Dream.

I apologize up front for the mushy-ness, but this is what Norman Rockwell does to me.

Today, it seems like we get so lost in computers, technology, social marketing, staying connected through our iPhones and BlackBerries that we don’t seem to find time to play catch with our kids, ride our bikes as far as we can ride them (and then go back), or just go for a cruise with our family to the soda joint.  It seems like we are so caught up in what everyone else is doing that we don’t bother to ask how our wives and kids are.

I gripe at this lifestyle every time I pack up the car for a family road trip.  I ache for those stops with huge plaster dinosaur statues or mountains with faces blown into the side.  I remember the good ‘ol days, white picket fences, homes with huge wrap-around porches and time spent outside, talking with the neighbors, who were your best friends.  I dream one day of traveling the open road, and seeing America in all its glory with my family in an RV.  Shoot, I dream of a day when I can spend more time with my family.

In Search of Norman Rockwell’s America is an exhibit, inspired by Kevin Rivoli’s book that shows through photographs that Norman Rockwell’s America is, indeed, present today.  The exhibit will have over 35 original Normal Rockwell paintings alongside similarly evocative black and white photographs, taken by Rivoli.  Many of the original Rockwell paintings have never been loaned out from their owners.

This Friday evening, the Opening Gala will be held at the Visual Arts Center this Friday, the 12th at 7 pm.  There will be “dinner, dancing, and cocktails.”

Visit the Visual Arts Center’s web site for more information.