Good Intentions: Re-Imagining Norman Rockwell's Boy Scouts | KCET
Good Intentions: Re-Imagining Norman Rockwell's Boy Scouts
It all began at a Los Feliz garage sale. Among a sea of odds and ends, discarded knickknacks and unwanted furniture, writer and curator Andrew Pogany stumbled upon a unique find: 43 pristine reprints of illustrations of the Boy Scouts of America by famous American painter Norman Rockwell. There were pages upon pages of vibrant, idyllic designs: scouts holding hands, their angelic grins ear to ear, puppies and presidents, stars and stripes. The prints exuded Rockwell's signature American positivity, and a warm, cookie-cutter wholesomeness that seems too good to have ever really been true.
Pogany was intrigued. "[The images] were all very innocent, almost coyingly sweet," he says. "I just felt like they were ripe for version." He walked away from the garage sale with a decent deal -- $10 or $15 for the whole set -- and with a handful of ideas for how he could rework the old pictures into new forms of art. But none of these original concepts panned out, so for nine years, the Rockwell prints were relegated back to being stored in a garage -- this time, in Pogany's.
Almost a decade later, Pogany decided to reexamine his Rockwell prints, with the help of Gagosian Gallery archivist and friend Ben Lee Ritchie Handler. From there, they created "Good Intentions" -- an art exhibition centered around the 43 Boy Scout images. Pogany and Handler gave 20 local Southern California artists access to the old prints, then asked them to each create a new piece inspired by Rockwell's world. These artists "had the ability to confront and re-contextualize [Rockwell's] images for a new generation of youth," Pogany and Handler wrote, and could "engage Rockwell's Boy Scout imagery with thoughtfulness, humor, and a critical eye." The resulting art now is displayed at Subliminal Projects in Echo Park and fills the pages of a new book, also titled "Good Intentions," about Pogany and Handler's project.
Back in the mid 20th century, Rockwell's Boy Scout illustrations were more likely to be proudly displayed on a family's kitchen wall than sold at a garage sale. According to statistics from 1945, "a gratifying total of one billion six hundred million persons look at a given [Rockwell] Boy Scout calendar on a given day."1 That's more than the entire 1945 U.S. population... multiplied by 11. Rockwell's Boy Scout images dominated mid century mainstream pop culture. Their sugary sweet chasteness attracted a large following of optimists and American Dream-seekers; for viewers, the pictures were a source of comfort, highlighting all that is simple and pure while veering away from any underlying darkness.
As an institution, though, the Boy Scouts of America are not without a darkness of their own. Membership discrimination, both for scouts and scout leaders, has been a continual issue; it wasn't until 1974 -- 64 years after its foundation -- that the BSA put an end to racial segregation within its troops. "There's a long history of exclusion in this group that's supposed to be emblematic of what makes up our country, or what makes up the good in our country," says Handler.
Most recently, the BSA was under extreme scrutiny for disavowing openly gay scouts and scout leaders. Heated debate over the program's ostracization of the LGBT community reached a boiling point in 2012. Talk of reform heightened even further that May, when leaked records of inter-organization sexual abuse made national headlines. In light of these controversies, Rockwell's depictions of the Boy Scouts seemed jarring; the organization's modern reality had deviated so far from his idyllic Americana dreamland of the past. It was this contrast between the images and real life that fascinated the artists of "Good Intentions" and fueled their artwork.
Once Pogany and Handler explained their concept to the "Good Intentions" participants, each artist had full creative freedom to interpret the prints in his or her unique way. "We tried really hard not to push them in any one direction," says Pogany. "We merely asked them to confront those images in some way. We didn't give any specifications as far as medium or size, either." This lack of control paid off -- each artist returned with their own fresh angle, making for an eclectic collection of art. The finished products range across many mediums -- paintings, sculptures, charcoal and ballpoint pen drawings, printed calendars, fabric designs -- and each one re-imagines Rockwell's scouts quite differently from the next.
Kime Buzzelli-Hosford took a bold and overtly political approach to Rockwell with "Stay Alive." Her vibrant watercolor of a transgender scout pops as a brave visualization of the LGBT community's struggle for survival.
Buzzelli-Hosford's painting is a direct reference to Rockwell's "We, Too, Have A Job To Do" -- both her scout and Rockwell's stand solemnly with a traditional three-finger sign and salute. A few other artists also chose to directly reference specific Rockwell illustrations in their pieces, but they did so to a humorous effect. Christine Wang, for example, took "A Good Scout" -- an innocuous painting of a boy feeding a dog -- and flipped it on its head, replacing the puppy with a sexually-charged Japanese manga girl, caged and in chains. Eric Yahkner inserted a sly, grinning Liberace into the background of "A Scout is Reverent" -- a once innocent image of a boy scout and an elderly clergyman in prayer -- infusing the piece with a darkly funny homoerotic undertone.
For Yahnker, the choice to incorporate Liberace was easy. "[He] has sort of always existed in my life," Yahnker explains. "His face and bejeweled fingers always stared back at me from a large red songbook which sat on my family's old upright piano since I can remember ... I loved the notion that he could simultaneously have absolutely all of straight America and absolutely none of gay America fooled about his sexuality." In 2007, Yahnker decided to start drawing him in the background of historic contexts where it would seem he was manipulating the action, "such as whispering encouragement to Judith before plunging her sword through Holofernes neck, or egging on the Apostle Thomas to stick his grimy finger in Christ's gaping wounds." For his piece for "Good Intentions," he says, "I wanted Liberace to break the fourth wall and engage the viewer directly, staring out just as he did to me from that song book on my folks upright piano. Of course, it's in the viewer's own conflicted mind what action happens next, if anything at all. All I've done is innocently set up a situation."
Tofer Chin took a much subtler approach to Rockwell. Instead of re-imagining old images, he created something entirely abstract: a strikingly folded tan scout uniform, upholstered onto canvas. Inspired by the structured feel of the Boy Scouts -- both aesthetically through their uniforms, and through their leadership organization -- Chin bought an original BSA shirt on eBay and designed it to emphasize geometric shape and clean lines, as well as a sense of balance and rigidity.
Aside from varying in approach and artistic method, the 20 artists of "Good Intentions" also varied in demographics, representing a wide diversity of race, gender, personal background, and sexual orientation. This melting pot of artists was a purposeful decision -- an attempt to challenge and counteract the comparatively limited cast of characters depicted within Rockwell's prints. Caucasian boys and men are the clear, central protagonists of his every illustration, with a supporting rotation of puppies, horses, and women occasionally filling out the background. "I think in Norman Rockwell's world, the way things worked was: divinity came from God, to George Washington, to the Boy Scouts," says Handler. "And obviously, that's only inclusive if you're a white male." Racial diversity was also slim, and whitewashed to a point of unrecognizability. "[Rockwell's people of color] are always never of an explicit minority," Handler continues. "They'll maybe be painted a darker color, but you can't clearly discern how they are different from the other boys."
"The only way they're different is that they're forced to wear funnier-looking outfits," says Pogany. In "A Good Sign All Over The World", diversity feels forced, and also, in a way, fetishized. With his over-the-top dance, the Scottish scout, along with the multicultural boys in the background, is still portrayed as the outsider, the other, instead of a central character.
Unsurprisingly, Rockwell's lack of diverse subjects was a recurring theme throughout "Good Intentions." To subtly address the issue of male dominance, Alika Cooper selected fabrics for her piece that had an uncanny feminine tone to them. "I chose a lace print cotton for the boy's face," she says, "and a taffeta-like silk for the Boy Scout scarf around his neck. I wanted to demasculinize the child's awareness, imagination, and surroundings symbolically from the strict uniform and stance."
Noah Davis chose to focus on race. His painting, "Black Boy Scout," is understated yet powerful, quietly challenging the marginalization of boys of color in Rockwell's predominantly white world. Davis' black subject is barely squeezed into frame, suggesting the approximate amount of space that a minority would receive within a larger mural full of scouts. "I chose the particular dimensions because I wanted the painting to be quiet," he says, "to almost mirror the presence of the black kid from which the image was culled."
Since "Good Intentions" opened in June, it has received plenty of buzz across Southern California, including some from an unlikely source: the Boy Scouts themselves. According to Pogany, a group of Los Angeles-based BSA administrators visited the exhibit and expressed a genuine interest in the artwork and its messages. "We don't take a distinctly negative or overly critical stance [on the Boy Scouts]," he says. "It's political, but it's a very well-rounded look, and I think that's what allows a Boy Scout of America troop leader to go to the gallery and still feel good about what he sees in there." "Good Intentions" is well received because it's honest; it tackles both the negatives and the positives of the Boys Scouts, without being too harsh or critical. The artists were able to recognize that the Boy Scouts of America are not the idealized heroes of Rockwell's work, but nor are they the villains. The organization's actual sense of morality, like that of real life, falls somewhere in the gray.
Vanessa Prager's submission to the exhibit, "Untitled," is a great example of this moral complexity. With the the careful navy and red lines of her ballpoint pens, she manages to capture two contrasting lights: a moody darkness, and a quiet, luminescent glow. Her scout subject stands tall but looks wary, surrounded by shadows of uneasiness -- creating an unsettling feeling that Rockwell's naively perfect Boy Scout art didn't dare experiment with. "I was trying to create a sort of dirty/clean world," explains Prager. "I think good and bad and happy and sad go hand in hand. To try and show not one side but both is more real to me."
Eric Beltz's work of art, like Prager's, also captures a dichotomy: the natural versus the societal. Beltz describes his central boy scout figure as a "shamanistic intercessor" who is leaving the impure dust of the world behind and making a transition towards truth, spirituality, and nature.
The drawing's adjacent text, written in delicate cursive, is of Beltz's own creation. It's a patchwork poem of sorts, woven together with quotes from Ovid's "Metamorphoses," The Forgotten Books of Eden, George Washington, books on Tibetan Magic and the Kogi Indians, with some of Beltz's own ideas added in. Fused together as one text, these words call out for a spiritual awakening, a flight of the soul -- a departure from the trappings of society and ascent towards the freedom of an open mind:
and became inebriated
with the living water
that doth not die
to remove the impure dust
that covers the mental eyes
in the heart of the world
a great field open to Satan
as large as the sky
in the language of the gods
and in that of the demons
in all the languages that exist
Become like the land
which blossoms and rejoices in its fruits
and turn back
the bitterness of trees
By the 1960s, Norman Rockwell left his job illustrating at the Saturday Evening Post so that he could address more confrontational, realism-based topics in his art.2"New Kids in the Neighborhood" was a swift departure from his scout work. It depicts the scene of a black family moving onto a white street in fascinating detail, right down to the scowling, antagonistic look on the white children's faces. "The Problem We All Live With" -- which Handler and Lee call "one of the most effective and powerful images of the Civil Rights era" -- is also deeply moving, and was even displayed in the Obama White House, just outside of the Oval Office. "[Rockwell] did believe in desegregation," says Handler. "I think if he saw the current state of [the Boy Scouts] from a modern lens ... he would probably be in favor of allowing gay scouts into the organization, and allowing gay scout leaders."
Back in January, when Pogany and Handler were brainstorming a name for their exhibit, they kept coming back to one phrase: "good intentions" -- and it just seemed to fit. "We think that Norman Rockwell did have the best intentions," says Handler, "and I think that the Boy Scouts do have the best intentions. Like it says in [the foreward of our book]: 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions.' I think that once you realize you're on the wrong path, it's best to get back on the right one. So our intention is to, in some subtle way, nudge the Boy Scouts -- through art, through humor, and through community involvement -- and suggest that maybe their current policies are leading them down that wrong path."
"Good Intentions: Re-Imagining Rockwell's Boy Scouts" is on display at Subliminal Projects until Saturday, July 20. A closing reception for the exhibit will be held on July 18 at 6 p.m. The reception will also feature new Rockwell-inspired artwork that was created by children during a Free Arts workshop.
Copies of the "Good Intentions" book, which feature the works of each contributing artist, are both currently sold at the gallery and on the Pacific Stacks website. Digital catalogues and three original e-zines, made with selections from the 1911 Boy Scout Handbook, are also available for purchase online. All proceeds for these items will be donated to Free Arts for Abused Children.
1 Halpern, Richard. Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006.
2 About Norman Rockwell: A Brief Biography. Norman Rockwell Museum.