[Barrett Beatrice Jackson is a political scientist and legal historian, as well as a Fellow at the Behavioral International Economics Development Society (BIED). Her work brings together academic scholarship, public policy and law, and genealogy and family history, as this wonderful Guest Post illustrates!]
Norman Rockwell was always a name thrown around in our family. The essence of Americana, though I never knew quite why. After my grandfather died, framed Saturday Evening Post covers started showing up, hung in linear fashion, clearly old and faded, around our house. I always knew my grandfather was somewhat “quirky” – he is the reason why I now have hundreds of books dated back to the early 19th century on U.S. Presidents found at random garage sales he’d find over the years.
The story behind the Normal Rockwell’s, however, is a bit more complex and one which inspires a historiographic resolution that it is the “outliers” – those that go against the contemporary stereotypes and who may not be in the history books or regarded as the greatest thinker of their time but nonetheless are central in shaping our collective history. There was, and continues to be, a basic goodness of soul that deafens the noise of the world. We were taught to “Always Live In View of Eternity” – the family mantra being “ALIVE”. Showing up at the insular Methodist church for a couple hours every week wasn’t enough.
Let me provide some context. Before desegregation was no longer thought of as un-Godly, and World War II veterans were reaching middle age, Glenn Brown practiced as an OBGYN in middle Florida. (I’ve been told that after the war, he resolved to bring as much life into the world to atone for those he took away in Japan.) He was cultured and worldly, despite having grown up in Selma, Alabama, during Jim Crowe. He held himself to a higher standard—a believer in Kantian-like imperatives that transcend societal definitions of right versus wrong. He instilled in us all the conviction that there is more to life than the “rat race”, as he put it. Thus, he would risk his safety (and reputation) to travel deep within the black neighborhoods of rural Florida swampland to provide them free obstetrical care.
Enter Robert Butler. Also defying segregation laws, Butler was a penniless black artist who would try to sell his works at the same spot along the same rural highway in Okeechobee, Florida, every day. Inevitably, he and Dr. Brown would meet and, more surprisingly, become good friends over the years. Butler painted what he knew: the everglades, and was a master of water-colored landscapes in a signature style that exuded a unique ability to “read the land”.
Of course, supporting a family on a love of painting meant a life of barely scraping by. So by the late 1960s, he had to set out on the road to try to sell his paintings from his car. He later told the St. Petersburg Times, “I was swimming in this fantastic psychological soup at the time; I came from this poor background and yet this door was opening wide for me, to this universe that could be explored forever. I wanted to paint as much as I could and never looked back.”
From such different backgrounds, the two men shared this passion of finding profound meaning in the everyday mundane. Dr. Brown found inspiration in this man who “never looked back” as he himself lived in deep-seated guilt over those he killed during WWII and for a country that still vilified racial parity. What did he fight for? How could he atone? In Butler’s world, my grandfather recognized his naivete in making life a celebration of colors, a purity of soul unmarred by the realities of war.
Thus Dr. Brown began purchasing Butler’s paintings for his office and introduced him to other doctors in the city. Butler would go on to be a father to nine children, most of whom Dr. Brown delivered. Payment was in the form of a new painting. It was an unconventional arrangement but neither individual cared much for fitting any molds. In this way, everything that seemed at odds – race, class, education, et al – somehow strengthened their friendship.
My grandfather may have subconsciously been jealous of Butler’s natural joie de vivre but that is exactly why he surrounded himself, working in an extremely sterile hospital environment, with bright paintings that served as inspirational reminders—windows to the outside—of there being meaning in his being a doctor in such a socially backward and hypocritical area of the country. I’d like to think that Butler recognized this universal thirst of the soul and that is why his paintings were born out of such purpose and effortlessly bright natural beauty.
By the 1990’s, Robert Butler had become a household name in “wild Florida” and proved to be that one-in-a-million prodigy who had officially made it. He became a symbol of a group of black artists called “The Florida Highwaymen,” who saw and painted the world regardless of societal boundaries. In 2004 he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. He was sought after by all sorts of collectors, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts. After his death, our family had to promise his children that all the now extremely expensive paintings he had made for my grandfather would not be sold. So they hang amongst the homes of the children and grandchildren.
Now you may be wondering how Norman Rockwell fits into this story. The Rockwell originals were not just haphazardly found by my grandfather; rather, each one was sought after and selected based on the dates of publication of each Saturday Evening Post. Not necessarily famous dates in history but ones from family birthdays, marriages, personal milestones. Nostalgia personified. A deeply personal and private kind that retains symbolism beyond that amorphous concept of “Americana” and the well-known family at Thanksgiving dinner.
Not unlike Butler’s paintings, they—along with their subjects and dates published—are quintessential reminders of life’s small miracles amidst the ordinary. And perhaps that multi-layer of interpretation is one factor of Rockwell’s genius. The last painting Butler personalized for my grandfather embodied all of this. One of Dr. Brown’s favorites of Rockwell’s was his cover depicting a doctor holding an old-fashioned stethoscope to a young girl’s heart. He is kneeling down to her level, looking at her in a way that suggests he is mentally picturing all the things this girl was to grow up to be and do. As a sort of parting gift once his career reached new heights, Butler painted this Rockwell work, even copying the Rockwell signature, with his own “R. Butler” one to make it unique.
It remained in my grandfather’s offices throughout the years until he passed it down to my mother, his only child who pursued a career in medicine. As a woman. In the early 1970s. In Alabama. It then hung in her office until she retired last year. Whether she was an assistant professor or chief of staff, the painting was always there gaining new meaning as she fought to be taken as seriously as the male doctors. I do not know exactly how she sees herself in the painting –whether as the timid patient or the all-in devoted physician who encapsulates an unselfish Hippocratic Oath, despite administrative and political encumbrances in today’s current healthcare system. Probably a bit of both.
How then do we narrow in upon what has been, and is, utilitarian in American society? Is it about straining to appeal to everyone? Reach the most people for glory rooted in selfishness? Even strictly applying J.S. Mill to social movements and the backlash from pandemics and ensanguine public policies falls short outside of Democratic Theory 101.
On the contrary, it is about honesty: about past decisions and regrets, about recognizing reality is difficult and being self-aware and emotionally mature enough not to dwell but to “keep painting” for the future, so to speak. It is about accepting that self-forgiveness is a lifelong pursuit.
Allow me to put these rather personal sentiments into a broader context. Sometimes we prefer to romanticize history along the lines of “we are fighting in the name of freedom” and do not venture further to openly discuss the meaning of “freedom”. The backlash of world war and the new global dichotomy of democratic versus communist superpowers resulted in the 1950’s a decade of re-branding normality, the “traditional nuclear family”, and selling a new type of American Dream: peace through idealized stability.
At the same time, just as the Harlem Renaissance signified a growing grassroots resistance to accept that status quo, others rebelled courageously with their own art, providing a bond that reached across classes and regions. Able to bring a disillusioned white doctor from Selma, AL, to be moved by such sorrowful beauty in the middle of the Florida Everglades as a reason for hope and purpose to heal such deeply engrained wounds.
For more on Butler: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Butler_(artist)
[Memorial Day series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute?]