A Birmingham art museum. I was younger. I had driven four hours to get here. I was wearing my nice clothes. And I was very excited. This was one of the high points of my life.
I had money in my pocket and a ticket stub for the exhibit.
I’ve never been what you’d call an “art-exhibit guy.” People in big cities probably go to exhibits all the time. But the only art I ever knew were the drawings on the boys restroom wall drawn by Bobby Carmichael. And those weren’t exactly pictures of the apostles.
I was giddy in that museum lobby. The whole day took on a dreamlike quality.
“Pinch me,” I said to the elderly woman ahead of me in line.
The woman laughed. She was leaning on a walker. She was from Massachusetts.
“When he died,” she said. “They made his studio into a museum. It’s not far from my house. Toured it once. If you ever go to Massachusetts, you should see it.”
“Maybe one day,” I said.
This was the first and only art exhibition I had ever attended. And to me, it wasn’t just an exhibit. This was seeing an old friend.
Throughout my lifetime I had spent a lot of time admiring his paintings, which once graced the covers of the “Saturday Evening Post.”
And as silly as it sounds, this artist got me through some hard times.
“My husband met him once,” the old woman went on. “Said he was a real nice man.”
Our single-file line was hedged with velvet ropes. I was wearing my fancy jeans. My hair had just been cut by a classy barber in Mountainbrook who charged me thirty bucks. It was highway robbery.
But it’s not every day you go to an art exhibit. I was really putting on the dog.
A museum employee unlatched the velvet rope. People emptied into the gallery. Each wall was adorned with gold-leaf framed canvases. It was euphoria.
The first painting I saw was of a soldier. World War II. Smudged face. He was seated on the ground, cigarette in his mouth. He looked battle worn. And my breath caught in my throat.
I had to sit on a bench to dab my eyes. I don’t know why. Probably because I’m a sentimental fool.
Or maybe it was because when I was a child, someone in my neighborhood was throwing out three boxes of “Saturday Evening Post” magazines. I found the cardboard boxes on the curb. Each magazine cover was one of his paintings. They were the most beautiful images I ever saw.
So I took them home. I spent an afternoon with a pair of scissors, clipping covers from magazines. I tacked the pictures to my bedroom walls. Then I clipped more paintings out of a compilation book of his work.
My room was soon plastered with the ratty pages of antique periodicals. My mother was thrilled.
And on the day my father died, I locked myself in that same bedroom and stared at these paintings until I fell asleep.
There was the painting of the woman and her boy, praying over their food in a crowded Depression-era restaurant.
The painting of two teenagers in a little diner, It’s titled “After the Prom.” It shows a boy and girl. He wears a tux. She wears a formal dress. They are so skinny.
A brown-haired GI who looks like a young version of my grandfather, peeling potatoes with his mother.
In 1916 the young artist sold his first magazine cover to the “Post” when he was just 22. World War I was on. Germany had begun attacking ships in the Atlantic. A Spanish influenza pandemic was on the near horizon.
And he was painting pictures.
He went on to illustrate 322 covers for the “Post,” over a period of 47 years. Each work was a masterstroke painted on canvases he primed with cheap Benjamin Moore housepaint. And each work arrests your attention.
He was commissioned to paint the portraits of Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, Kennedy, and Nixon. And after a long career spanning four wars, and the most turbulent time in history, he once told someone, “I paint life as I would like it to be.”
That’s how I felt sitting on that museum bench. His paintings showed the world as I wanted it to be. A pretty place, with good people, and lots of heart.
The old woman with the walker sat beside me. We were together in silence for a long time, admiring the view.
If he had lived today, chances are nobody would have noticed him. His work would have been laughed at. It would have been too quaint for critics. Too charming. Not enough gore.
But I admire him. Not just for his steady hand and attention to detail. But because he had a second pair of eyes. He could look beneath daily life and see things others missed.
When others saw America, browbeaten by war, breadlines, Great Depressions, dust storms, politicians, and the greed of industrialism, he only saw her beauty. And he painted her that way. In the midst of hell, somehow, he illustrated kindness, childhood, and the simplicity of love.
A kid at the vet’s office.
A young man singing to his hound.
A blue-collar man, seeing his son off to college.
A beautiful black girl walking to school, accompanied by four U.S. Marshals.
A hopeless young redhead, trying so hard to play a trumpet.
The old woman patted my shoulder and said, “He sure was good, wasn’t he?”
He was better than good. He was Norman Rockwell.
And I wish we had more like him.