Father and daughter reflect on art careers


STOCKBRIDGE -- Jarvis Rockwell, who stepped out of his famous father's shadow to forge a 60-year career as a conceptual artist, is seeing that career in retrospect in "Jarvis Rockwell: Maya, Illusion, and Us" now at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

It shows the evolution of his work from the early portraits and drawings, through his string installations, environmental performances, and fantasy drawings to more recent structural pieces and assemblages.

Selections from his extensive toy collection appear in "Maya V," the fifth of a series of pyramids inspired by Hindu temples.

The oldest of three sons of Norman and Mary Bairstow Rockwell, Jarvis Rockwell began collecting action figures in 1979 and creating small narrative groupings in Plexiglass boxes. In 2001 he expanded that narrative with his first "Maya," pyramid shown at Mass MoCA in North Adams. Its figures, he says, speak to society's longings and aspirations.

Recently, he joined his daughter Daisy by his first wife, artist Susan Merrill of Stockbridge, for a conversation with The Eagle about the exhibition, about being a famous family and what they think of each other's work.

A Southeast Asia scholar, writer, artist, and member of the Norman Rockwell Museum board, Daisy Rockwell lives in North Bennington, Vt., with her husband and daughter.

The interview is edited for brevity.

E: How did this idea of retrospective for Jarvis at the Norman Rockwell Museum get started? You are on the board, Daisy. Did you have a role in developing it?

D: My father was thinking a lot about what he would do with his toys and body of objects and we talked with the museum about things that we might do with them. [Curator] Stephanie [Plunkett] thought it would be wonderful to put together a retrospective, not just of the toys, but of everything.

I also was impressed with the way the museum is expanding its identity and mission [so it's not just about Norman Rockwell] and I thought that created a greater scope for my father's work to be presented not just as "son of" but as an artist in his own right.

E: Many people know your father's "Maya" pieces. What do you think of them,?

D: What's interesting is the way he thinks about them. He creates so many stories.

J: All of these figures come from stories and some of the stories are only a line long. There's a similarity here between me and my father. I found I could use the toys as characters and he used his characters as toys.

D: He arranged people.

E: You both distanced yourselves from your famous forebearer. You, Daisy, use a pseudonym as an artist. You, Jarvis, chose to do work very different from your father's. Why?

D: The name Norman Rockwell is like an adjective. People who don't really know who he is use his name to describe certain things, saying it's so Rockwellian.

J: People don't even really know what his pictures looked like. He moved around within the field during his life.

E: Jarvis, did you nurture Daisy's artistic upbringing?

J:I don't know about nurturing. Her mother and I didn't want to force things. [Goes on to name other family members on both sides who made art, including his present wife, Nova.]

D: I wouldn't say they pushed me to be an artist but I don't think they considered that I wouldn't think of life as having any other options.

J:I was surprised that she became an artist. I really was.

E: So, Daisy, when did you start to define yourself as an artist?

D: I really had to get away. They didn't push me to be an artist but there was a pervasive atmosphere of art so I couldn't hear my own voice in my head. I had to get so far away I couldn't hear it anymore.

J:I think it's wonderful. Then she just started doing it.

D:I left my job at UC/Berkeley where I ran the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, but I didn't know what I was going to do with myself. I had no intention of doing art but there was a little art school there [in Palo Alto] and they were offering a course in etching and I thought that might be fun.

I enrolled [in 2006] and then I had to confront that I didn't know what to do. I had a lot of skills but I didn't know the subject I should turn to.

I had to come up with something for the assignment so I chose the founder of Pakistan and made about 10 etchings of him. [Explains that lack of easy access to the school etching press was a frustration so she later turned to painting.]

E:You, Jarvis, told me you couldn't do painting because your father had done it so well.

J: He was so much the first in good painting that I couldn't move through it or get around it. I tried for a while, but every time I'd fall asleep.

E: Was it a conscious decision not to paint or did you just drift into it?

J: It's sort of drift. It's not like one day you decide. It was just too much for me so I stayed out of it.

E: Is it accurate to tag you, Daisy, as more an Internet-oriented, social activist with subjects in politics and climate change and you, Jarvis, as interested in the kinds of values people have?

J: I was always trying to find myself. I spent my whole life doing that.

E:And have you?

J:Pieces. You just do it and there you are.

D: For both of my parents art is something very personal. It starts in an interior place. I thought that was the way you had to do it. But what's inspiring to me is what's happening outside of me. That makes me a little more like my grandfather than my parents. He was more interested in looking at the world around him -- maybe to a fault -- than what was inside of it.

J: He was taking in the world around him and bringing it through himself.

D: I get a lot of my images from Google searches and get excited about stories that really grab me.

E: I read about your doing images of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and you were quoted as saying when you do a portrait you become sympathetic to the subject. Was the writer describing you correctly?

D: I try to get to know them as a human being, to know what they're like. That's not the same as being sympathetic to their cause.

E: Jarvis, how does your daughter's political/social/ecological agenda strike you?

J: I don't know if I'm very interested in a lot of that. You take sides or you don't. I think her work is like illustration in a way. She's doing pictures of people moving around out there [in the real world]. I guess it's political.

E:Do you two talk to each other about your work much?


J: Minimal.

D: That's really the only way.

J: She's doing what she's doing, but it's not my way.

D:We keep a nice little picket fence around our turf, giving each other space.

E:What do you think of your father's work?

D:When you grow up with people [making art] it's hard to have any distance at all. It's my environment. But a big favorite of mine was the spider web. [Describes how the idea grew out of a children's party game in which youngsters were led into a room where a string spider web had been constructed and each had to follow one thread to its end.]

E: When you look back, Jarvis, what stands out as something you were pleased with?

J: Well, that [spider web]. I was walking through the woods with a colored line and tying it to trees and it was enchanting. And I looked and right next to me was a spider doing the same thing. I got an interest in structure and now [I'm interested in] the reality beyond the structure we know.


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