Kevin O'Hara: A bedside chat with Mr. Rockwell

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PITTSFIELD — To mark the 50th anniversary of the Norman Rockwell Museum, The Eagle has allowed me to update a story that first appeared in this newspaper on July 4, 1993.

In May, 1973, my fianc e Belita and I were sitting in my parents' living room, mulling over the last details of our June wedding, when the phone rang. It was Helen Downey, a friend and nurse at BMC, who explained how her father, Louie Lamone — Norman Rockwell's photographer — was looking for people of different ethnic backgrounds to pose for the renowned illustrator. She then asked if Belita, a native of the Philippines, might be interested.

Noting my excitement, Helen cautioned that posing for the painting didn't guarantee that Belita would be one of the final models chosen, but she was sure to meet Mr. Rockwell, and be paid a small fee for the sitting. She further explained that the artist had been selected by the Bicentennial Commission to create a work entitled, "Spirit of America," a proud mosaic of ethnic peoples that represent our country as a whole.

'LONG-HAIRED CELT'

The following Saturday, I excitedly drove Belita to the artist's impressive studio in Stockbridge, where we found ourselves amid a swarm of other hopefuls. Just as Mr. Lamone called Belita to be photographed, Mr. Rockwell appeared before me, pipe and all.

"Have you been photographed?"

"Oh no, sir," I replied. "My bride-to-be is being taken now, and I'm here just to keep her company."

After asking for my name, he smiled and shouted, "Louie, better take a picture of this long-haired Celt as well."

Once our photos were taken, Belita and I were directed to a small table where Mr. Rockwell wrote us each a personal check for $25. We walked away grateful, but wondered how this aging artist of 79 could still paint with the noticeable tremor in his hand.

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Helen kept us informed on the painting's progress throughout the summer. It seemed as though we were in an exclusive lottery, as Mr. Rockwell and a member of the Commission, were determining the pictorial fate of the multicultural contestants. For days they pondered over 40 photos, needing only 25 profiles to fill a canvas measuring 21 x 57 inches.

Helen reported that Belita was an early winner, but I wasn't as fortunate — my mug spending its time between the reject pile and the back of the mock layout. But then, with one final shuffling of faces by the main man himself, I dropped into the winner's circle directly above Belita.

Helen soon gave us a small print of the work in near completion; a horizontal image filled with diverse portraits in profile, all looking up to the right against the backdrop of a waving American flag. As Helen had disclosed, the O'Hara's landed prime locations. In fact, the artist had stenciled his trademark signature against Belita's flowing black hair!

Norman and Molly Rockwell were also in the painting, as were his grandchildren, Barnaby and Abigail, and daughter-in-law, Gail. Louie Lamone, who appeared in 24 of his boss's artworks, was also included. So was David Gunn of Stockbridge, whose granddaughter, Lynda, was the little girl in the famous Rockwell painting, "The Problem We All Live With." In the very front was a Native American taken from the illustrator's files: a member of the Stockbridge tribe.

Disappointingly, the painting never went to the Bicentennial Commission, where it was to be used as a dust jacket for a major publication celebrating our 200-year history. We actually lost track of its whereabouts for three years until Cerie Moon, also featured in the painting with her toddler, Heather, spotted a Franklin Mint ad that offered a small limited reproduction of "Spirit of America" on porcelain at $75 each. We were able to purchase two, one of which hangs proudly today in our dining room. (The actual painting was auctioned at Christie's in May, 2014, and sold to a private collector for 1.1 million).

VISIT FROM LOUIE

Working as a nurse at BMC in 1978, the year of Mr. Rockwell's death, I heard that he was convalescing in a private room, and was due to be discharged the following day. Wishing to thank him for including my wife and me in what Mr. Lamone called, "Norman's last great work," I approached his longtime private duty nurse in the cafeteria, Miss Margaret Downs, and asked if I could visit her patient to express my gratitude. Receiving her permission to make a "brief stop," I dashed up to Four East and knocked gingerly on the door. Upon entering, I immediately struck a pose at the foot of his bed, "Mr. Rockwell, do you remember me?"He propped himself up on his pillow, and took one keen look at this sudden intruder. "I never forget a face I've painted," he half-joked. "Why, you must be Louie the 14th."

Today, a half-century later, I still recall the exhilaration I felt after my brief but memorable chat with the celebrated artist. There I had the opportunity to tell him how proud and honored both Belita and I were to be chosen for one of his splendid works. Indeed, a significant picture that portrays the strength and promise of our culturally diverse nation. A painting, he told me, that was very dear to his heart.

Kevin O'Hara is a longtime Eagle contributor. Visit his website at www.thedonkeyman.com


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