Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thank you, Mr. Rockwell

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My dad, an amateur painter, got a big kick out of Norman Rockwell paintings. We couldn't miss Rockwell's stuff on the fronts of the Saturday Evening Post magazines, lying around the house in Manitou. And, we got to understand the many points of humour in a Norman Rockwell cover. Not that we were so brilliant, but mom would take it upon herself to explain all the jokes: "Geez mom, we get it! We get it!"

My favourite is still Going and Coming -- two paintings hung above and below each other, contrasting a high-spirited family driving to somewhere, like the lake, on a hot summer day, and the horrible ride back. The second painting is the same car as the first, but going the other way, with the wrung-out dregs of the same family -- some of them slumping, sleeping or carsick, and barely visible.

That painting came out in 1947, before I was born, but once I found it as a teenager, I saw that it mirrored our family of six, with four kids and a dog hanging out the windows (no air conditioning or seatbelts). On the way to Rock Lake on bumpy old Hwy. No. 3, we'd be making faces at passing cars or testing the force of the wind with our hands, while our Auntie Kay, whom we picked up along the way, rode courageously in the back.

Once we got to Rock Lake, dad would drive us straight to the water -- I mean close, right to the edge. We'd already have our bathing suits on and we'd tumble out of the car, with the dog panting and running ahead of us into the water, to dive and swim and finally cool off. Then we'd go see our cousins at their cabin on the hill above the water, to play and fight while the Beamish sisters got caught up and their husbands had a few cold adult drinks and argued about boring stuff like playoffs and elections and drain pipes.

After a summer dinner -- corn on the cob, hotdogs, watermelon -- we'd fall back into the hot car and endure the god-awful ride home, with everybody too tired too talk, except for "How many more miiiiiiiiles, daaaaaad?" The effects of the cool lake water had long worn off; it was still hot, the summer sun high in the sky. Mom would be falling asleep against the window ledge; at least one of us would be car sick; Dad, maintaining a grim look, would be determined to get us home fast in the car smelling of hidden salmon-sandwich crusts and half-finished apples.

If my dad were alive today, he'd be 96 and we'd be delighted to be off with him to see the Norman Rockwell Exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which opens Friday and runs to May 20. This showing of 40 major paintings -- the complete set of 323 Saturday Evening Post covers -- is the first-ever presentation of Rockwell's paintings in Canada, and the WAG is the only Canadian venue on this touring exhibition, which comes from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Who cares if Rockwell's work is considered Americana? It was about family life back then, and we can ignore the odd American flag. I'm going to ask my 20-something boys to come with me. They may get a kick out of it -- or find it horribly dated. I'll take that chance. This is a slice of my family's history, clearly illustrated in a way that's better than I could ever tell it to them.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2012 D5

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