An imaginary interview with Norman Rockwell at BYU

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This image depicts Norman Rockwell being interviewed by Jeff Call. While Rockwell died in 1978, his work is still admired in America. (Image by Matt Bennett)

The following is a humorous fictional interview with artist Norman Rockwell. Rockwell’s work will be on display, “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell​,” at the BYU Museum of Art from Nov. 20 until Feb. 13, 2016.

A couple of days ago, I was wandering around BYU’s campus, enjoying an unseasonably warm fall afternoon. There was plenty going at BYU that weekend, including David Archuleta’s performance for Homecoming Spectacular at the recently renovated Marriott Center and East Carolina’s first-ever football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

For some reason, I was overcome by nostalgia, thinking about all of the famous people who have played sports or performed or given talks at BYU. I was there when former President Ronald Reagan spoke at the Marriott Center in 1991 and I was there again when former President George H. W. Bush spoke there in 1992. Presidential candidate, and BYU alum, Mitt Romney, spoke here last year. The Marriott Center has also hosted famous authors, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and numerous apostles. Then I started thinking of all of the great athletes and noted broadcasters who have plied their trade in Provo, even just for one day. Billy Joel, Elton John, Boston, the Cars, Journey, the Beach Boys and Carrie Underwood are among the musical artists who have performed at the Marriott Center or LaVell Edwards Stadium.

While walking past BYU’s Museum of Art, I remembered the school soon will be hosting “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell.” The exhibit will feature more than 50 paintings by Rockwell, who has long been a national treasure. The exhibit opens Nov. 20 and runs through Feb. 13, 2016.

As images of Rockwell’s famous work of nuanced scenes filled my head, I found myself strolling past the Brigham Young statue outside the Administration Building when I heard a voice with an East Coast accent call out to me. I glanced to my right and saw a thin man wearing a dark suit sitting on a folding chair in front of a pallet of paint and an easel. He looked curiously out of place, even at BYU.

“Excuse me, sir, but do you know where I can buy some tobacco for my pipe?” he asked, removing his smoking device from the pocket of his wool pants.

Certainly, it was an odd question to be asked at BYU. I feared that the Honor Code police, if they saw this man, might tackle him and escort him off the premises.

“Not here,” I said with a laugh. “You’ll probably have some luck finding some on Center Street.”

The man frowned as he put his pipe down. “My name’s Norman. Norman Rockwell.”

I audibly gasped.

Then I started looking for hidden cameras. Maybe this was part of a “Studio C” comedy routine.

“Hi,” I replied, playing along. “I’m Porter Rockwell.”

“Nice to meet you, Porter,” he said as he reached out to shake my hand.

As I moved closer to greet him,  I saw he was painting BYU students on their way to classes, and depicted most of them with heads down, staring into their smart phones. It certainly looked like Norman Rockwell’s work.

“You’re really Norman Rockwell?”

“The one and only,” he said. “Sometimes I’m allowed to do some painting. Since this university is going to be displaying my work, I thought I’d check things out. This is about the closest thing I’ve found to a G-rated, idyllic setting.”

My body was covered in goosebumps. I was talking to the man who painted so many timeless, iconic images that are ingrained in our culture.

It was like the scene in “Field of Dreams,” when Kevin Costner’s character meets Shoeless Joe Jackson.

I was about to score the Interview of the Century with Norman Rockwell, the great American Illustrator, who died in 1978.

“Mind if I ask you a few questions?” I asked. “I’m a journalist, and I think people around here would really like to know what a renowned artist like you thinks about life in the 21st Century.”

“I wouldn’t mind at all,” Rockwell said, pushing aside his oils and canvas. “I like journalists, for the most part. I gained most of my notoriety from my Saturday Evening Post covers. I haven’t done an interview in years. But I’ll give you five minutes.”

I eagerly pulled out my laptop.

Q: What do you think about your art being displayed at BYU?

A: I’m just happy people still believe it has relevance after all of these years. I feel downright comfortable here for some reason. It’s quite a peaceful place with a lot of fresh-faced young people. It gives me hope for the future. If anyone can appreciate my work, it’s probably the nice folks I’ve seen here. People here dream big. I see the school paper is called “The Daily Universe” and they like to say “The World is our Campus.” I like that.

Q: One of your most famous paintings, “The Problem We All Live With,” deals with racism in our society. What issue or issues would you take on in your work today?

A: Many of the issues essentially stay the same, and in many cases, that is unfortunate. I would have thought that by now racism would be eradicated, but it’s not. While I’m amazed, and encouraged, that the American people elected a black President, I also see there’s a movement called “Black Lives Matter.”

I also painted a lot of war-related themes. I lived through World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. I’m sad to see that the wars have never really stopped, they just change scenery. Now you’ve got wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Times have changed in many ways, but many things stay the same.

Q: You painted so many classic pieces dealing with the Boy Scouts of America. What do you think of gays being allowed in Boy Scouts?

A: I always thought it was a glaring omission from the Scout Law. ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.’ What about gay, which is a stronger word than cheerful? A scout should always have a smile on his face and contentment in his soul. So, yes, “gay” should be included in the description of a scout.

(I decided not to delve deeper, in the interest of time.)

Q: Where else, and what else, would you like to paint here on campus?

A: LaVell Edwards Stadium. I’ve never seen a prettier setting for a college football game. I would love to paint a game — preferably a BYU vs. Utah game — with the majestic mountains serving as the backdrop. I’d call it “Wasatch War.” The Blue and Red would create quite a contrast.

I’d also like to take a crack at the place called the CougarEat. A lot of potential there, with beautiful, rosy-cheeked coeds doing homework, or a happy couple discussing wedding plans over a chalupa and a non-caffeinated beverage.

I’d love to visit the Missionary Training Center to paint young men and women trying to learn Mandarin Chinese or Finnish.

I’d like to paint your football coach, Bronco Mendenhall — I love that name, by the way — riding one of his horses.

I’ve heard of this place called the Testing Center, where they don’t let men inside if they have a trace of scruff on their faces. But I don’t know why anyone would want to go inside anyway. I hear there’s a lot of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth there.

And I saw a picture earlier today of former BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson. He died the same year I did and he looks like a stern scoutmaster I once painted.

Oh my, there’s a treasure trove of great material around here!

Q: Anything you’d like to tell the BYU community?

A: Thank you for displaying my work. I hope you enjoy it. I hope it entertains you, makes you smile, makes you laugh, makes you think. By the way, one of my good pals, Mark Twain, regrets writing all those unkind things about the Mormons when he was alive.

With that, he starting packing up his paints and his easel.

“Thanks for your time, Mr. Rockwell,” I said. “It was an honor to meet you.”

“You’re welcome, Porter. Now could you please direct me to Center Street?”


Jeff Call has covered BYU sports since 1993, including the past 16 years for the Deseret News. He, his wife and six sons live in Cedar Hills.

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