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Salon: Hidden in Plain Sight

While visiting the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., five years ago, Jane Allen Petrick ’67 glimpsed two paintings that felt eerily familiar—though she’d never seen them before.

The Problem We All Live With depicted a little African American girl walking bravely to school between four escorts. On the wall behind her, a burst tomato and a racial epithet hinted at the struggle to integrate schools in the 1960s. Petrick was struck by what felt like a version of her own 6-year-old self: straight posture, folded white socks, and “a dark brown forehead topped by a thick wooly braid,” she says. The other picture that held her spellbound was Boy in a Dining Car, whose kindly Pullman waiter immediately reminded Petrick of her beloved uncle Hugh.

Nourished and inspired by the artist’s depictions of African Americans, Petrick found herself wondering about the subjects Rockwell had used as models. She spent several years tracking down these African Americans, in addition to Native Americans in his works, and recording their experiences. The result is her book Hidden in Plain Sight: The Other People in Norman Rockwell’s America.

One of those models was Pauline Adams Grimes, who was 5 when she and her three siblings took part in a three hour photo shoot in 1952 in Rockwell’s studio. The American folk painter Grandma Moses, a friend of Rockwell’s, had recommended the Adams family when he was seeking models for a United Nations mural. In Petrick’s book, Grimes recounts how the soft-spoken artist offered the children cookies and bottled Cokes. They were paid $15 each, which was $5 more than Rockwell usually paid his models, and a welcome windfall for their single mother. In the mural Grimes appears in the lower left corner, her hands clasped in prayer. Her older brother Paul is depicted as an African boy with gold hoop earrings.

Petrick says she was pleased to discover that Rockwell, who died in 1978, was far more inclusive than his reputation as an artist of white 1950s suburban America suggests. “I never expected that a visit to the Berkshires would result in my writing about Norman Rockwell,” says Petrick, who studied economics at Barnard. She has a doctorate in organizational psychology, and worked as a corporate director for Knight-Ridder (since acquired by The McClatchy Co.) and a senior director of human resources for AT&T Wireless. Passionate about cultural and historic preservation, she enjoys leading tours and is a certified and licensed tour guide.

Ultimately Rockwell gripped her attention and would not let go. “Amidst all the voices that broke free as I was researching this story, amidst all the voices that wanted to tell their stories for the first time, the loudest voice of all was that of Norman Rockwell,” she says.

Despite the artist’s penchant for sentimentality and even kitsch, Petrick discovered that he didn’t shy away from racial controversy. In The Problem We All Live With—the work that initially caught Petrick’s eye—he captured the commingled fear and courage of the little girl tasked with integrating an all-white school. Rockwell also regularly depicted minorities as workers, citizens, and bystanders, all part of America’s rich, diverse fabric.

Delving into her subject, she was grateful for the encouragement she received from Laura Claridge, author of a 2001 biography of Rockwell. “The more she talked to me about what she was going to do, the more excited I got,” Claridge says. “I told her I thought it was magnificent. How could it not be?” She says that neither she nor any of Rockwell’s other biographers had explored the ethnicity of his models. “It was shameful to me because I don’t consider myself an unenlightened person,” she says. She praised Hidden in Plain Sight as “excellent” and “a necessary supplement if you’re really serious about looking at Rockwell.”

Petrick, who lives in Woodstock, N.Y., and Coral Gables, Fla., says she put her Barnard training to use as she investigated. “That’s what you get for having a great liberal arts education like you get at Barnard!” she says with a warm laugh. “You know how to do research, and once you get curious about something, you can’t let it go. You have to keep going.”

Petrick launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $3,500 for copy editing, formatting, and indexing. She topped that goal with donations totaling $4,450 from 75 people. The self-published book was released last year in digital and print formats. It’s printed on demand and available as a download. Petrick has begun working on a hardcover second edition with a tentative release date of 2016. She’s securing permissions to reproduce pictures that contain minority models so readers can see not only Rockwell’s iconic art but also the diverse faces he immortalized.

—By June Bell