In the Footsteps of Norman Rockwell

The Norman Rockwell Studio and Inn in West Arlington, Vt. Photo courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Studio and Inn.

By Telly Halkias

If ever a region could be called “Rockwell Country,” it would be southwest Vermont and the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

In these places, the great American illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) lived, laughed, loved, and brought to life some of the most iconic images of American life.

Along the way, Rockwell left his mark on the area, where today locals recognize and celebrate him for the joy his art brought to millions of people. Here are several venues worthy of any visitor, from Rutland, Vt., in the north to Stockbridge, Mass., in the south, where his name is still spoken with reverence.

Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont, Rutland

It’s a modest building on the outside that looks like it could be a working barn plucked from any Vermont dairy farm.

On the inside, however, it’s a reverent tribute to the famed American illustrator.

It’s also a repository of just about any Rockwell print, magazine cover and other memorabilia for sale to collectors. And if you are a collector, you will love this place.

While this museum focuses on Rockwell’s years in Vermont, it holds more than 2,500 Rockwell pieces including magazine covers, advertisements, and paintings. The exhibitions therein excel at exploring Rockwell’s evolution as an illustrator, both commercial and aesthetic, and deftly connects his work to the cultural and economic history of the United States.

Established in 1976, the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont is known widely as a destination spot for Rutland visitors over the past four decades, and its nationally recognized collection of Rockwell’s art venerates the diversity of his entire career (1911-1978).

Address: 654 US-4, Rutland, Vermont.
Phone: 802-773-6095
Directions, full contact info and hours: normanrockwellvt.com

Norman Rockwell Exhibition at The Sugar Shack, Arlington, Vt.

This venue screams “Vermont!” more than any other Rockwell spot.

The village of Arlington is where the famed artist called home from 1939 to 1953, and is often cited by visitors as having the perfect balance between being quaint and real.

There might have been no better place, then, for Rockwell to have chosen and used 200 locals as models for his iconic magazine covers and other illustrations. The exhibition, in true Vermont fashion, is co-located with the Sugar Shack, a country bakery that also specializes in Vermont maple syrup. But step past the Sugar Shack and take in a very informative 18-minute film on Rockwell’s life while he lived and painted in Arlington.

Along with the many legendary Rockwell images on display, one room in the exhibit showcases the models. As guests browse, they learn about the people Rockwell painted who actually lived and worked in Arlington.

And if you are lucky, two surviving Rockwell models periodically come in and speak to bus tours that stop by in the summer and fall. They are Ruth Skellie, 90, who posed for Rockwell’s 1939 Saturday Evening Post cover “Marble Shooter” and Don Fisher, 84, the subject of Rockwell’s 1954 Post cover “Breaking Home Ties.”

Address: 118 Sugar Shack Lane, Arlington, Vt.
Phone: 802-375-6747
Directions, full contact info: sugarshackvt.com/norman-rockwell-exhibit

The Norman Rockwell Studio and Inn, West Arlington, Vt.

Rockwell lived and worked in Arlington for 14 gloriously productive years. This property — now known as the Norman Rockwell Studio and Inn (formerly the Inn on Covered Bridge Green) — was Rockwell’s second (in the town) and sits in West Arlington.

When the studio at his former Arlington home burned down in 1943, Rockwell said: “It was my own fault … ashes must have dropped out of my pipe onto the cushion of a window seat.” So he purchased a large farmhouse in West Arlington, which now is the Norman Rockwell Inn. The structure itself was raised circa 1792 as a tavern. Today, it offers well-appointed accommodations and tributes to Rockwell’s years spent there.

Rockwell then found a picturesque spot with excellent natural light at the southern tip of his land, and there he rebuilt the studio 150 feet behind the well-appointed inn. There, he did the majority of his Vermont work with many of local models to create hundreds of illustrations that later went on to international acclaim.

This tidy barn-red cabin, as of spring 2018, also doubles as the home of The American Creator Seminars. This organization brings together some of the nation’s top illustrators, painters, writers and other working artists to hold weekend classes, workshops and singular colloquia for up to 14 very fortunate students at a time.

Address: 3587 River Road, Arlington, Vt.
Phone: 802-375-9489
Directions, full contact info: coveredbridgegreen.com

Joe’s Diner in Lee, Mass. was the backdrop for Rockwell’s famous painting, “The Runaway.” Photo: Stephanie Zollshan.

Joe’s Diner, Lee, Mass.

Joe’s Diner doesn’t need an introduction to locals or tourists; it’s already a well-known eatery forged in the tradition of first generation offspring of Mediterranean immigrant families making good in the New World, all while starting with just a few bucks in their pockets. Joe’s is now in its third ownership.

Yet, for all its success as a local landmark for more than six decades, it’s one moment of global fame is when Norman Rockwell, who was looking for a quintessential small-town New England backdrop, found it at Joe’s and created what is arguably one of his most memorialized Post covers from 1958 “The Runaway.”

The illustration depicts a warm, idyllic scene of a young boy, a Massachusetts state trooper and the counter boss. Since its publication, it has come to grace the walls of police stations and diners nationwide as a symbol of community safety and the embracing of youth under any circumstances. Once again, real life New Englanders helped Rockwell, as local boy Ed Locke and a Massachusetts state trooper, the late Dick Clemens, posed for illustration. Rockwell knew something of how Joe’s added to the milieu; you, too can find it out first-hand.

Address: 85 Center St., Lee, Mass.
Phone: 413-243-9756

Classic cars line Main St. in Stockbridge, Mass. as part of the town’s annual recreation of Rockwell’s “Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas (Home for Christmas).” Photo: Gillian Jones.

Main Street Historic District, Stockbridge, Mass.

It’s December 1967. A holiday season like no other, and Norman Rockwell, who has settled in the Berkshires after his years north of the border in Vermont, ventures forth to capture the spirit of the season.

Nowhere in town is there a better spot than right across from the classic building fronts on Main Street and so the artist produced his defining holiday oil painting “Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas (Home for Christmas).” The artist’s own studio is marked with a Christmas tree in the window above the market.

The town of Stockbridges celebrate the start of each holiday season with a popular reenactment of the painting, right down to which vehicles were parked in front of which storefront.

But the appeal of the Main Street Historic District goes far past Rockwell’s painting, and once more, we see how his sixth sense must have grasped this very point. Today, Main Street remains almost frozen in time, with building fronts virtually unchanged and a visitor’s experience second to none, between shops, the arts, and the anchor Red Lion Inn, a stately grande dame that welcomes both lodgers and those who wish to have a meal at one of their stops in the footsteps of the great Norman Rockwell.

Address: 50 Main St, Stockbridge, Mass. (Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center)
Phone: 413-298-5200
Directions, full contact info: stockbridgechamber.org

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass.

Known globally, but very much a regional Berkshires fixture, the Norman Rockwell Museum is the authoritative location for all things Rockwell.

Here, both fans and scholars can appreciate and study the artist’s work and his contributions to popular culture and social commentary.

The museum, founded with the help of Norman and Molly Rockwell in 1969, is home to the largest public assemblage of Rockwell’s art — almost 1,000 original paintings and drawings are held in its collection. Rockwell’s Stockbridge studio has been moved to the museum grounds and is open to visitors in the summer and fall.

The author Paul Johnson once famously note that the Norman Rockwell museum had to be the quintessential venue at which to appreciate the artist’s greatness as it is “crammed from dawn till dusk with delighted visitors crowding round the originals of much-loved paintings … in the nearby little towns you can recognize among the locals the children and grandchildren of those whom Rockwell painted with dedicated veracity.”

The museum is also the perfect place to culminate a trek down Route 7 from the northernmost point of Rutland Vt., in a valley where Norman Rockwell found his place those he loved and admired most: the common New Englander.

Address: 9 Glendale Road, Stockbridge, Mass.
Phone: 413-298-4100
Directions, and full contact info: nrm.org

Telly Halkias is a national award-winning, independent journalist. He lives and writes from his homes in southern Vermont and coastal Maine.

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