There has been a great deal of buzz lately about Steven Spielberg and Norman Rockwell. Spielberrg owns something like 20 of Norman Rockwell paintings and in July 2010 there will be a special exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in  Washington, D.C.. Spielberg’s paintings by Rockwelll will join some 30 other Rockwells from the collection of filmmaker, George Lucas.

Like almost everything else in life, there is always a Peace Corps connection. Spielberg owns, “Peace Corps in Ethiopia” a painting that now hangs in the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, New York. It is on loan from Spielberg as part of “Norman Rockwell: American Imagist,” a traveling exhibition curated and organized by Judy Goffman Cutler.

The Ethiopia Peace Corps and Norman Rockwell connection began in 1963 when Rockwell traveled to Ethiopia, and, I believe, to visit the PCVs in India, at the invitation of the agency. While in Ethiopia he found the subject matter for two famous paintings that featured PCVs serving there at the time.

rockwell-ethiopiaThe most prominent painting is entitled, Peace Corps  Ethiopia. It shows Marc Clausen (Ethiopia 1962-64) in a field with farmers and an oxen. Marc was a secondary school teacher at the time and this painting, as all of Rockwell’s paintings, was staged. There is an article in the current Vanity Fair that details how Rockwell would stage, photograph, and then paint his illustrations, mostly for the covers of the old Saturday Evening Post magazine.

In Ethiopia, he used a camera to photograph and save images to work on in his studio back home. Asked by someone while in-country why he wasn’t showing the real conditions of the country, Rockwell remarked that Americans couldn’t handle the Third World. Instead, he said, he’d just apply a bandage to a child when he wanted to illustrate pain and suffering.

Marc Clausen wasn’t an agriculture Volunteer. None of us were in that first group to Ethiopia. We were all teachers in classrooms, far from the fields.

rockwell-jfkThe second painting that involves the Peace Corps showed President Kennedy with a cluster of PCVs. In that painting are two recognizable Ethiopia I Volunteers. The blond woman up front is Linda Bergthold (Ethiopia 1962-64) who taught school in Addis Ababa; the other Ethiopia PCV is the African American woman, Lonia Strong (Ethiopia 1962-64). Lonia served in Asmara. (If you recognize other PCVs, let me know.)

The group, as we can see, is looking hopefully into the dawn’s bright early morning light. A new day in America, or so we had hoped at the time when we were all young, and when we were all so full of hope and plans to change the world.

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rockwell-barry-harris1A note from John: Because photos can’t appear in comments I am happy to post here a photo of (from left to right) Ethiopia Country Director Harris Wofford, commenter Barry Hillenbrand, Molly Punderson Rockwell and Norman Rockwell at the secondary school in Debre Marcos, Ethiopia.