Disparate cultures come together in new exhibition at Norman Rockwell Museum
STOCKBRIDGE — In Uri Shulevitz's picture book "Dusk," a little boy walks with his grandfather and dog through city streets at twilight. He points to windows where bright lights shine from a Hanukkah menorah, Christmas tree and Kwanzaa kinara, children's faces peeking over windowsills at the street below. "Lights," says the boy in the story. "It's as light as day."
The inclusive cultural expressions of this image illustrate the theme of a new exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum. "Cultural Traditions: A Holiday Celebration" takes a look at the many different ways winter holidays are celebrated.
"It's looking at cultural traditions through the winter season," said exhibit curator Barbara Rundback. "At the winter solstice, people like to celebrate as the days grow dim, they are longing for light and warmth."
The exhibit presents original artwork from children's books by six illustrators, most of them award-winning leaders in their field.
"In my selection, I was looking for content that had something to say, where you could learn something," Rundback explained. "The text was just as important as the art."
Artworks are displayed in the chronological order each holiday takes place, accompanied by text panels offering detailed descriptions of the traditions depicted.
In Karla Gudeon's illustrations for Harriet Ziefert's Hanukkah Haiku, floating figures reminiscent of Marc Chagall celebrate with potato latkes, spinning dreidels, chocolate "gelt" coins and eight nights of candle lighting. Rundback describes the images as "beautiful whimsical work, you can see the handmade paper it's joyous."
Beloved artist author Tomie dePaola wrote and illustrated "The Night of Las Posadas," setting the Hispanic community's pre-Christmas tradition of reenacting Mary's search for lodging in the inns of Bethlehem in the snowy Southwest.
Russian-born Gennady Spirin, a prolific Christmas book illustrator, takes a finely detailed old-fashioned approach to Clement Clarke Moore's classic poem "The Night Before Christmas." "[Spirin] was born on Christmas and looks like Santa," Rundbeck observed.
Rundbeck also found space to hang "Christmas Trio," a painting by Norman Rockwell from the museum's collection, his style inspired by the Charles Dickens tales his father read to him, she said.
Brian Pinkney has illustrated his wife Andrea Davis Pinkney's pictorial guide to Kwanzaa in his signature scratchboard style, a distinctive mix of deep black lines and rich colors, with kente cloth patterns framing each image. His father, acclaimed watercolor illustrator Jerry Pinkney, will present one of the exhibit's artist-led "Family Days" scheduled during the holiday season.
In Grace Lin's hands, Chinese New Year dances off the page with bright hues, simple figures and dumplings, fireworks, lion dances and lanterns galore, awash in "lucky" red color blocks.
Polish American artist Shulevitz's gentle, light-filled tale "Dusk" brings all the holidays together in one place. "To me, this is the universal glue," said Rundbeck, "you don't know what nationality or culture they're from."
"There's an important aspect of publishing that's devoted to multicultural themes and diversity," said Norman Rockwell Museum deputy director Stephanie Plunkett. "This was a lovely festive way to celebrate that."
While the museum has featured Christmas-themed exhibits in the past, finding ways to be inclusive of other traditions "gives people the opportunity to learn about one another and appreciate and understand other points of view," Plunkett added.
"Every culture has its own unique traditions, and these are important to who we are. And we can enjoy them together."
The exhibit is fitting for a museum dedicated to the art of Norman Rockwell.
"Rockwell was a great humanitarian," Plunkett said, "very interested in people in general with a strong sense that everyone was equal. This really comes through in the spirit of the work he created throughout his life. He realized that art has a tremendous power to impact us."
In the iconic 1961 image, "Golden Rule," currently on tour with the Four Freedoms paintings, Rockwell depicted a panoply of faces, races and religious expressions.
"He tried to reflect the traditions, cultures and beliefs of people around the world," Plunkett said.
As part of a full lineup of associated programing, families can create art with a different holiday theme each day during the December school vacation, and meet exhibiting artists on Family Days.
"There's a warmth about this time of year and an expectation that it's in some ways a kinder, gentler time," Plunkett observed. "As we look forward, one of the goals of the museum is to create experiences that are much more inclusive of various cultures and traditions and races and just diversity in general. Everybody has a lot to offer — the way they go about their lives from different vantage points makes us a much richer culture."
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