Carole Owens: 'Shaftsbury' embodied 'new vision'
According to the Berkshire Museum website, decreases in funding caused serious financial problems. To face the challenge, the museum executive and board engaged in "an exhaustive two-year planning process to identify potential paths toward a sustainable future."They concluded, "The museum will focus on interdisciplinary interpretation exploring connections among science, history, and the arts."Thereby the new vision will create "an innovative 21st century institution" wherein "exhibitions will integrate the arts, science, and history into learning experiences."
Here is the irony. Nothing fulfills that "new vision" better than the old painting they are selling. Nothing integrates art, history, and science better than "The Shaftsbury Blacksmith's Shop" by Norman Rockwell. The board wanted to capture "what powers lives and commerce"? The Rockwell painting does that perfectly albeit in another age.
The painting freezes a moment in American history when what powered life and commerce was the horse. A time before mass-production, when a man's physical strength, speed and ability were depended upon. A time before electrified entertainment when watching two men compete at their trade was entertainment for the whole village. A moment when commerce depended on horses, and domesticated horses needed horseshoes.
Unlike many other Rockwell illustrations, "Shaftsbury Blacksmith" ran inside the Saturday Evening Post not on the cover. It illustrated a short story called "The Blacksmith's Boy: Heel and Toe." Written by Edward O'Brien, the story ran in the Nov. 2, 1940 issue but the story was set in 1907 and even the vocabulary reflected that.
For example, a century ago, horsepower meant the rate at which work was done by horses. Snowshoeing did not refer to a winter sport; it meant making winter shoes for horses. The smithy "winterized" flat shoes (blanks); he turned the heels and welded on the toes. Heel and toe was not a way of driving a stick-shift, it meant taking flat unfinished shoes and tapping (shaping or sharpening) them over the edge of the anvil using the proper rounding, pien or driving hammer. Preparing toes meant creating cleat-like calks of steel that could be cut in advance and laid ready to be pounded into the shoe or immediately welded onto the toe to give the horse additional traction.
According to Hoofcare, an online Blog, ordinarily heel-and-toeing tasks were done on a slow afternoon, building up an inventory ready for when the ice and snow fell. Each "blank" was laid aside ready to customize for a particular horse. The story in the Saturday Evening Post was more exciting.
Told by the blacksmith's boy, the story was about a contest between his father, the local smithy, and a stranger who challenged him. A ten-hour competition determined who could "heel and toe" the most. Since the shoes were made of metal, as the two men worked, the sparks flew. The villagers watched and placed a wager or two.
The painting is the springboard for endless interpretation that combines art, history, and science. It is the evocation of another era and a lesson in the mutability of language. It depicts the profession that is diminished in the modern world, and a place that is gone. It provokes children to ask if it hurts the horses and why are horseshoes considered lucky? No it does not hurt; it is equivalent to cutting your toe nail. Lucky because horseshoes are metal and metal was believed to ward off evil spirits. It is perfect for an interpretation of its artistic merits, accomplishments, and its place in American art. In short it is the embodiment of the "new vision"— a blend of art, history and science. Rockwell brilliantly captured a moment in time ripe for the savvy curator to interpret.
If in that two-year planning period, the museum staff, executive, and board missed the value of what they had, have they miscalculated the value of what they propose? Will the new vision stand the test of time as well as The Shaftsbury Blacksmith's Shop has?
Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.
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