Rockwell models fondly remember artist, experience

Sunday July 7, 2013

STOCKBRIDGE -- They may be older, their faces a bit more lined, but for millions of people they will always be the iconic children and young adults that harken back to a simpler time.

On Saturday at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, several of Norman Rockwell's models reminisced about their experiences working with the famed American artist -- and one-time resident of Stockbridge -- on the indelible images he painted during his long career.

"It's a thrill to be associated with [Rockwell and his work]," said Lenox resident Dale Zola, who modeled for the artist in 1973. "It was very special at the time and seems to get even more special over time."

Zola, along with her parents, was featured in a 1973 cover for an S & H Green Stamps catalogue as a bride trying on her wedding gown with her proud father and mother looking on. She said Rockwell let her keep the dress. Yes, she still has it, and no, it's not for sale, Zola said.

The sense of being a part of something bigger than oneself seemed to be a pervasive idea among the models.

"I feel blessed that I was lucky enough to be chosen," said Donald Hubert, who was featured in two of Rockwell's works, including the iconic "Saying Grace," a 1951 Saturday Evening Post cover. The Bronxville, N.Y. resident was about 7 years old when Rockwell discovered him while the artist was roaming the halls of a school in Arlington, Vt., looking for models. Hubert said it wasn't unusual for Rockwell, who lived in the town for many years, to find child models at the school.

Peter Wheelwright said he is often struck at how others perceive him when they learn he modeled for Rockwell. He also still finds it odd when he comes across his image on everything from figurines to ashtrays.

Wheelwright, a novelist and design teacher at Parsons in Manhattan, grew up in the Berkshires and was featured in four paintings with his father, who was Rockwell's doctor, for the Brown and Bigelow calendars of 1961 and 1962.

Claire Williams, who worked for many years as a docent at the museum, was one of Rockwell's models for a series of Mass Mutual Life Insurance Co. advertisements in the late 1950s. The Stockbridge resident said she still meets people who tell her "We've got you on our wall."

Speaking with the models a sense of Rockwell the man and artist begins to emerge. Loved by children for his gentle and friendly manner -- and the Coca-Cola machine in his studio -- Rockwell, when working with his subjects, was single-mindedly focused on getting things just right. And he went to great lengths to make that happen, from taping Hubert's legs to a chair because he was fidgeting, to pricking a baby's foot with a pin so she would wail just so. It also often included long hours for the young models posing for paintings or drawn-out photography sessions so Rockwell had the perfect shot to work from.

According to Melinda Pelham Murphy, Rockwell once had her sit for 15 hours while he worked on a painting in which she was the subject. She was also the baby in question who was jabbed with a pin for the 1947 Saturday Evening Post cover titled "The Babysitter".

"He really wanted me to be howling [for the image]," she said.

Her mother didn't confess Rockwell's pin pricking escapade until years later.

"I don't think there were any long-term effects," laughed Murphy.

Her father, Gene Pelham -- a great illustrator in his own right -- was Rockwell's photographer for many years and she fondly recalls having the run of the studio, playing with the different costumes and drinking Cokes, while her father and Rockwell worked.

"He was really a sweet man," she said.


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