PRINCETON, Ill. — For the past few weeks, discussions that centered around an exhibit inspired by artist Norman Rockwell have taken place in Princeton, Illinois. The final one took place June 12 at the Freedom House.
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Some participants enjoyed a thick slice of apple pie as they waited to learn more about the 18 photographs that were a part of the Revisiting Rockwell exhibit.
Maggie Meiners is an interdisciplinary artist. She created images that put a new spin on works created by the Four Freedoms and Beyond artist. Rockwell’s paintings captured his vision for the Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.
Meiners said she started to research Rockwell and decided to appropriate his work. She said creating these pieces removed her from of her comfort zone, but she wanted to foster conversations around this work.
“A lot of moving parts,” Meiners explained. “Not a way I had worked in the past. And so, but there was something in my heart that just made me need to make it.”
Rick Brooks is the director of Midwest Partners in Princeton, Illinois. This nonprofit organization funded the Four Freedoms and Beyond project that features Meiners’ works. He explains the need for the series.
“I think all of us here would agree that it’s been challenging lately, for more than one reason for us to not only talk to each other,” he said, “but to listen to each other. So that’s what this session, this entire project has been about.”
Each group sat at their own table and was asked to focus on the Freedom from Fear.
Rockwell’s original painting shows a white mother and father standing over their sleeping children.
Meiners’ interpretation showed something slightly different – a Black woman standing over her two children while holding a Chicago Tribune newspaper. The headline mentioned another killing of a Black person. Meiners tells why she wanted to depict this image.
“It was a response. Mother to mother, as a white woman in suburban Chicago, in response to all the shootings that were going on that particular summer of 2016,” she said. “I felt completely helpless. I did not understand why the senseless killing was going on.”
Meiners said that the photo was controversial. She said some Black women mentioned that she fed into a stereotype. There was no father in the picture.
“And I recognize that after the fact the harm in that, and that was never my intention,” she explained. “But it was also a really good learning lesson for me as an artist, because I think we can be very self-centered.”
Pat James is a Princeton resident. She’s attended three out of the four events. She said this exhibit shows how the world has transformed.
“Looking at the pictures of Rockwell in the past, and how that reflected life then, and how these new images reflect the changes in our society,” James said.
David Gray also took part in the exhibit’s discussions. He said the in-person format is valuable and he appreciates the exhibit.
“This kind of work is important because Rockwell — to a lot of people symbolizes America,” he said. “His work symbolizes an America that that once existed, whether that really existed or not for a lot of people that sort of the symbol of that past America.”
Those attending were asked to take cards with some of the images from the exhibit. The cards featured Meiners’ work with a faded image of Norman’s inspired work on the back. Participants were asked to write their thoughts on the pictures and mail them to the Four Freedoms and Beyond project. This feedback could possibly show up on the project’s website and other media.
Illinois residents who missed the exhibit will have another chance later this year. The Downers Grove Public Library will display Meiners’ work in September.
Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It’s a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.