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Sue Bruns: A Thanksgiving reflection: What Rockwell might paint today

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Around the holiday season, nostalgia creeps up on me with selective memories of the past, minimizing the hurts and disappointments of childhood and adolescence, filled instead with fond remembrances of ordinary things and everyday occurrences.

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Some of my favorites include nickel root beers in frosty mugs at the local A&W; roller skating along uneven sidewalks in clamp-on metal wheels; fishing for bullheads in Spring Lake with my brother; building forts in the basement with card tables, old sheets and blankets; catching frogs in the freshly cut hay in Uncle Jerry’s pasture; and sitting in my cousin’s barn in a pile of new puppies — their eyes still unopened.

Always a fan of Norman Rockwell, I’ve collected books and prints of his over the years, impressed by his attention to the details in both ordinary and momentous occasions. Art history classes I took in high school and college glossed him over as a mere illustrator, but to me his resume includes artist, philanthropist, philosopher, social commentator and keen observer of human nature.

Not nearly the astute observer that Rockwell was, I still attempt to notice the simple details of daily life, wishing I had the talent, perception and patience to capture those moments as Rockwell did. When I tune into TV news and bemoan the drivel of sensationalized non-news and the superficiality of the reporting or flick through channels of “reality” TV programs, I think, “We need Norman Rockwell back. We need someone who knows how to take an ordinary event and record its details for posterity.”

Norman Rockwell could do more than just capture a childhood memory. He could portray the complex relationships in life — whether they involved a doctor listening patiently with his stethoscope to the chest of a little girl’s doll, a young soldier returning to his home neighborhood after serving in the war, or a little black girl in a crisp white dress on her way to school, escorted by several officials — the evidence of spattered tomatoes on the wall behind her.

I wish Norman Rockwell were here today to portray the moments in life that are still worth capturing, because our television news saddens and disappoints me. Even when the news covers a “heartwarming story” it is beaten to death with shallow commentaries. Rockwell didn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence by telling him how to feel about it. The moment was simply there, frozen in colorful, vivid detail, for the viewer to bring to it what he may.

If Norman Rockwell came back today, what would he paint? What details of today’s everyday would he select?

If he were to come to Bemidji in 2013, he certainly would capture the curly blonde-haired little girl, standing at the foot of Paul Bunyan, staring up in amazement at the 18- foot, 2½ ton cement legend. Rockwell would capture a broadly smiling, freckle-faced, missing-toothed boy with a fishing rod, holding up a perch, his Take-a-Kid-Fishing guide in the background. He would capture young and old: A Lumberjack football player, dashing toward the end zone under Friday night lights with an opponent falling just behind him, missing the tackle, and the crowd cheering crazily in the background. He’d paint the table of old friends at Raphael’s, meeting for morning coffee, talking and laughing, but he would also paint homeless people, huddled under the Mississippi bridge.

Rockwell would not limit himself to small town scenes, though. If he had been alive in the past decade he would, no doubt, have painted the swearing-in of the first president of color; a team of rescue workers in boats, evacuating people during Hurricane Katrina; a veteran of the war in Afghanistan being fitted for a state of the art prosthetic leg; a middle-aged gay couple, gazing into one another’s eyes, saying their vows. Rockwell would include tones and details to paint emotion into the pictures, but he would not tell us how to feel about them.

Norman Rockwell once said, “I’ll never have enough time to paint all the pictures I want to.” None of us will ever have enough time to capture all the moments in our lives that are worth saving or worth reflecting on, but while we may not have the talents of this beloved American icon, each of us can capture our own mental images to save.

As we enter the holiday season, perhaps we can see with the eyes of Norman Rockwell to find — heartwarming or soul-searching , simple or complex — that for which we can be thankful in our own lives while we recognize those social issues all around us that we might choose to pretend are not there.

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