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Pops Peterson: Art as a force for social change

Pops Peterson's critically acclaimed series “Reinventing Rockwell” was driven by his mission not only to update the paintings to reflect modern-day advances, but also to show the evolution of gender roles, sexuality and ethnic diversity. 

Stockbridge — Pops Peterson grew up in a world where he didn’t see anyone who looked like himself on TV or in the movies; the black people he saw depicted in art were part of controversial images, and he was often fearful. Peterson remembers feeling “totally marginalized, as if [he] did not exist.” While not an historian, Peterson lived through tumultuous times in American history and his experience is invaluable. “I am the textbook,” he says, speaking on the issue of civil rights from a unique vantage point. “I tell others what I remember from watching the news when I was a kid,” he recalls. Peterson was 12 when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Today, in a world increasingly full of individuals looking to effect change, Peterson’s artwork is making a bold statement: he has permeated the iconic, albeit largely monochromatic, world of Norman Rockwell to reflect the panoply of individuals who live in America. The result is wildly impactful.

“I really think Norman Rockwell is helping me from beyond,” Peterson said with deadpan sincerity. Oddly enough, the parallels between the two are more prevalent than one might imagine. Rockwell became the very first artist whose name Peterson knew, thanks to his cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post. “Everybody got it,” recalls Peterson of the weekly publication, and the aspiring painter quickly came to recognize both Rockwell’s block signature and quotidian scenes of life in small town America. They grew up a scant three-quarters of a mile apart from one another in uptown Manhattan, albeit in different time periods­ – Peterson went on to attend the city’s High School for Music and Arts on St. Nicholas Terrace, just half a mile from where Rockwell spent his own teenage years on St. Nicholas Avenue; and Seven salon.spa, the business Peterson and his husband, Mark Johnson, own in town, is located directly across the street from the house where Rockwell lived and died. In fact, 7 South St., the current salon, was once a funeral parlor. “Rockwell was embalmed in our staff room!” jested Peterson. But again, he was completely serious.

Peterson, a denizen of Stockbridge, could “literally be a character in the world of Norman Rockwell,” the artist who lived and worked in the iconic town between 1953-1978.  Rockwell (1894-1978), a well-known and well-respected figure in Stockbridge, was embraced and supported by the community. His studio was on Main Street; he could be spotted riding his bike through town each day and he cultivated a relationship with the locals on whom he relied as models for his paintings. In many ways, the two artists’ journeys are closely aligned.

‘The Problem Persists 1964–2014’ by Pops Peterson, part of his ‘Reinventing Rockwell’ series

Peterson, who hadn’t drawn in 30 years, made what he called “a miraculous re-entry into the art world” after relocating to the Berkshires more than a decade ago. What began as stick figures drawn to accompany his blog quickly took off; before long, it was all about the pictures. Several years ago, Peterson undertook a project aimed at examining the work of Norman Rockwell “as if he were living and breathing today,” Peterson explained. His critically acclaimed series “Reinventing Rockwell” was driven by Peterson’s mission not only to update the paintings to reflect modern-day advances, but also to show the evolution of gender roles, sexuality and ethnic diversity. Peterson’s original work – he is a digital artist – also reflects his relationship to the changing landscape that is America.

Peterson was jolted backward in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown – an unarmed, 18-year-old black man – who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In the midst of so much progress, Peterson felt as if he’d been catapulted back to a time when he was “living under an ever present threat of violence, marginalization and fear.” Immediately following the riots in Ferguson, Peterson was drafted back into the movement, taking to the studio where he created “The Problem Persists 1964-2014” (or “It’s Still Happening”). In a singular shift of his process, Peterson took Rockwell’s original image of Ruby Bridges – shown being escorted to school by two U.S. marshals – and superimposed it over a composite made of newspaper images depicting the detritus following Ferguson. “No one should have to walk through a war zone to go to school,” said a teary Peterson, whose contemporary image is just as powerful as Rockwell’s original. It is his unique perspective, however, that begs of viewers to take pause and contemplate: What progress has been made in the past 50 years?

This portrait of Sandra Bland, whose life quote was “Be a positive light,” has never been published; it is part of Peterson’s ‘Names’ project, a tribute installation for the modern-day black people who have been senselessly slain.

Peterson’s enthusiasm is palpable and the impetus for his work clear: to do good things for the world. “So much goodness has been given to me; I now feel a responsibility to be the giver,” explained Peterson, 66, who has two pieces currently in an exhibit at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield as part of #PressForProgress, on display through Thursday, April 29. Peterson’s most recent work, “I’m With Her,” inspired by Rockwell’s “Freedom of Assembly,” is an epic tribute to the International Women’s March. This worldwide protest, which took place Jan. 21, 2017, sought to advocate legislation and policies regarding human rights and other issues including women’s rights, immigration reform, health care reform, reproductive rights, the natural environment, LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality, freedom of religion and workers’ rights. Most of the rallies were aimed at Donald Trump following his inauguration as president of the United States, largely due to positions regarded as anti-women or otherwise offensive.

Peterson’s depiction of the event, the largest single-day protest in American history, features 45 individual models. Lady Liberty and Rosie the Riveter are in the crowd; protesters hold posters that read “Never Go Back” and “Resist” while more than a handful of pink pussyhats punctuate the crowd. Peterson, who describes himself as persistent, empathetic and faithful, has been an ambassador for civil rights through his dedication to “keep progress progressing,” as he put it. “People are feeling robbed, feeling threatened; not only are they frustrated and angry, but they are also feeling uncared for and lost,” he continued. In many ways, Peterson’s images, as well as his outlook, are antidotes to this groundswell of desperation. “Each of us has the power to act on our beliefs…to do something…to rise to the occasion,” said Peterson, his emotion visible – which, in any great struggle, is always the first step.

Peterson will present a workshop Friday, April 13, in Springfield as part of the 2018 Fair Housing + Civil Rights Conference. His multimedia lecture “Arts and Civil Rights II” is an emotional cavalcade of photos, video, music and stories of the artists and artworks that have fostered civil rights in American history. Discussing influential artists from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Stevie Wonder as well as incorporating first-person anecdotes of his encounters with Josephine Baker, Gordon Parks and other icons, Peterson will delve into the essence of art as a force for social change.

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