Carving his own legacy

Thursday, July 09
STOCKBRIDGE -- Peter Rockwell, cigar clenched between his teeth, clambered nimbly up the side of his 9-foot sculpture, "Grendel's Folly," Wednesday morning.

"I carved this for climbing," he said. "I just have to remember where I put the handholds."

The sculpture -- a collage of gargoyle-like faces -- was carved from a solid block of Indiana limestone in 1994, and its sits in front of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Glendale.

"Actually," said Rockwell, "this [sculpture] was supposed to be 6-feet tall. But the company we ordered the granite from sent us a 9-foot block. So I used it."

Rockwell, the youngest son of famed illustrator Norman Rockwell, is on campus at the museum this weekend to host a retrospective of his career, showcasing more than 40 years of the artists' work in stone, bronze and clay.

The retrospective opens today. Rockwell and the extended Rockwell family will also be guests at the Museum's 40th anniversary gala tonight.

Saturday has been proclaimed "Peter Rockwell Day" by the museum. Peter Rockwell will be appearing at a series of public events throughout the day.

This is an ironic peak for a man who admittedly "stumbled" into a career as a sculptor.

"'Stumbled' is exactly the word," he admitted, after climbing off his sculpture. "I resisted being an artist because there were too many in the family already."

In addition to his father, Rockwell's older brother Jarvis is an artist, while brother Thomas is an author.

"I was an English major in college, and I was going to teach English when I graduated," he said.

Peter Rockwell's change of heart came in his freshman year at Haverford College in 1954. That year, Rockwell suffered a near fatal injury while fencing, being pierced in the lung.

"That put me down for a while, but like an idiot, when I went back to school the next year, I tried to fence again," he recalled. "But I couldn't do it. Every time someone lunged at me, I flinched. So I realized I had to find another activity."

He signed up for a sculpting class, "and after about the third class, I fell head-over-heels in love with it," he said, citing the enthusiasm of his sculpting professor, Wallace Kelly, as a key influence on him.

Rockwell said he realized that while he was not particularly good at drawing, he was very good at sculpting.

"I discovered that I don't have a two-dimensional mind," he said. "But I do have a three-dimensional mind."

After graduation from Haverford in 1958, Rockwell enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia to study sculpture. In 1961, with the support of a traveling fellowship from the academy, Rockwell, his wife Cynthia and their son Geoffrey journeyed to Italy, ostensibly for a six-month stint.

"The original plan was to find a small furnished apartment [in Italy] to rent for six months," said Rockwell. "But we couldn't find a reasonable rent for a six-month period. But we did find a nice, one-year unfurnished rental, which we took. But at the end of the year, the idea of going back [to the United States] didn't seem to be that interesting."

The Rockwells have lived in Italy ever since, although most of Peter Rockwell's commissions and shows are in the U.S. His work has been exhibited in galleries in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The Norman Rockwell Museum has the largest collection of his work.

Father Norman Rockwell didn't necessarily approve of Peter's ambitions. Yet, said Peter Rockwell, when Norman was commissioned to create a bas relief on a building in New Hampshire, he agreed, as long as he could hire the sculptor.

"And he hired me," said Peter Rockwell. "He was always good like that."

Sitting in the foyer of the Norman Rockwell Museum and giving an interview, Rockwell said he was not surprised when a museum was built to honor his father.

"My father has been famous almost all his life," he said. "His career was at a peak when he was 22, so we [the Rockwell family] were used to fan mail and the attention. What became interesting to me was in the 1990s, when my father became an important painter as well as an important illustrator."

In addition to his sculpting work, Rockwell is also recognized as one of the foremost consultants on historical stone carving techniques. He has taken consultant jobs all over the world. His reference guide for specialists and non-specialists, called "The Art of Stoneworking," is considered one of the most important books on the subject in the world.


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