Jarvis Rockwell, 81, stands in front of one of his latest works having to do with mortality at his gallery in North Adams on Friday.
Jarvis Rockwell, 81, stands in front of one of his latest works having to do with mortality at his gallery in North Adams on Friday. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

NORTH ADAMS

Jarvis Rockwell, at age 81, is confronting his mortality -- with a pencil and gorilla glue on a wall.
He is building an expansive mural of interlocking quadrangles drawn in pencil and studded with glued-on beads, buttons and spangles at his storefront studio here. It stands just beyond his signature "Maya IV" pyramid installation of pop action figures, and among other displayed works from a 50-year art career.

Rockwell describes the piece as a "personal journey," a visual essay on the transition of individual souls from "a three-dimensional life" to a oneness "with the meaning of it all."

It is a topic he has been moving toward for some time in drawings and installations that examine issues of identity and interconnectedness through everyday ephemera.

Business cards, for example, serve as epitaphs; fish-eye buttons, "the best Wal-Mart could do for me," represent souls (or the windows thereto); while the density and thickness of the pencil shapes surrounding each button/soul speak to its position on the road to whatever lies beyond.

"We speak of final products," Rockwell says, "but I don't know what the final product is."

As long as he is on this side of life's end, it will evidently remain so.

The eldest son of famed illustrator Norman Rockwell, who died in Stockbridge in 1978, Jarvis Rockwell considers himself spiritual, but not religious.

"I was not raised in a faith," he says. "I think Christ is a very interesting person and I think it's interesting what he did, but I don't worship him.


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I don't think that's what he wanted."

And Christianity, he says, killed too many people through religious oppression over the centuries.

His thoughts about harmony, spiritual oneness and even the possibility of reincarnation are more eastern than western in outlook, he admits, but his is still an evolving philosophy -- even at age 81.

The realization that he was fourscore hit him suddenly, he said.

"I couldn't believe I got to be 80. I remember my father at 80. He took a different course. He wasn't thinking the way I'm thinking now."

Growing up, he had a problematic relationship with his famous father, who is said to have been a distant parent absorbed in his work, despite the pipe-smoking family man image he cultivated to advance his career.

But he said his father supported him in his art studies, first at the Art Students League in New York and later at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he developed intricate drawings of structures from which faces or other figurative objects emerged.

He returned from San Francisco to Stockbridge in 1965 and continued to draw and paint until 1977, when he took up sculpture. Later, he began collecting toy figures of action heroes, comic characters and celebrities -- thousands of them -- arranging them in tableaux that said something about their fictional worlds.

Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson, who considers Rockwell among the more significant contemporary artists working in the Berkshires today, saw his work in the late 1990s and invited him to participate in a MoCA exhibition, "Game Show," in 2000.

Rockwell's piece, his first "Maya," was an 11-foot-tall stepped pyramid lined with hundreds of toy figures. It was inspired, he said, by Hindu temples he saw on a trip to India that were covered with sculptures of many gods.

His artwork equated toy celebrities and fiction characters with those Hindu gods as a kind of repressed Western polytheism.

Rockwell moved to North Adams with his wife, Nova, in 2002. He leased his 49 Main St. storefront studio/gallery four years ago, but said he is facing the prospect of vacating it because of a rent increase with a new lease.

"Probably after this I'll be working on a drawing table," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do with this thing "pointing to the wall mural. "It's enormous."

Rockwell says his work with toys, objects and pencil drawings in mixed media is a conscious distancing from that of his father.

"My father painted," he said. "To be myself, I had to not do that. I don't think that justifies it, but it's a reason."

Asked what he thinks now of his father's work, he said he admires some of his paintings at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, but "he got so he was almost cartooning in a way. I didn't like them very much. I liked [his earlier] season calendars."

One of three sons of Norman and Mary Rockwell, he says being tagged with a famous name is inescapable, but "it's something you have to learn to relate to."

He is looking forward to the publication this spring of a new biography of his father by news reporter/columnist Deborah Solomon. He said he has spoken with her several times.

"An interpretation of your father. It's such a wonderful idea," he laughed in his resonant voice. "And now, this is your father," he intoned. "I posit this. It's like being in a town meeting."

Of his own career ,on the other hand, he said, "I'm not outside of myself enough to look at myself objectively."

To reach Charles Bonenti:
cbonenti@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6211.
On Twitter: @BE_Lifestyles