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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 11, 2008
Norman Rockwell found universal themes in everyday Arlington life,
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND CENTER Joy Freisatz pages through hefty tomes on Norman Rockwell the way most people look through family albums.
She pauses to point out pictures that bring up personal memories. She shares stories from her family’s past and her own childhood.
Many Americans feel attached to the pictures that for decades graced the cover of America’s most popular magazine, The Saturday Evening Post; the stories told by those pictures speak to their own lives. But, for Joy Freisatz, the people in the pictures are her flesh and blood her mother and father, her grandmother and brother, her sisters and herself.
When she was a girl, growing up on a dairy farm in West Arlington, Vt., the Rockwell family moved in next door. The families became close. “We went back and forth; no one locked their doors,” said Freisatz.
“To us, it seemed like he didn’t work very hard,” she said of the artist she didn’t know was famous.
Her house in Guilderland Center now is filled with images of Rockwell’s work on framed prints and wall-hung plates, on bells and mugs displayed in a corner cabinet.
She points out a print of one of her favorites “Saying Grace,” which depicts an elderly woman with her grandson, bowing their heads in prayer before eating in a diner.
“It showed a different side of him,” she said of Rockwell. “He was always joking and everything was funny, except in his war things.”
This picture, Freisatz said, had a more serious theme, which speaks to her. Referring to Rockwell’s second wife, the mother of his three sons, Freisatz went on, “Mary didn’t like it. She was very influential in his life.”
She points out some of the people in the picture. “Mrs. Walker was a dear, sweet lady,” she says of the praying grandmother. “This man lived across the street...That’s his son, Jarvis,” she says of Jarvis Rockwell, one of the young men at the diner table, observing the pair in prayer.
“That’s my mother’s rear,” Freisatz goes on, pointing to the striped skirt of an unseen woman in the far left of the picture.
Freisatz’s picture is slightly different than the published version. There is no gritty city scene in the background and no messy table with a cigar-smoking patron in the foreground.
“He did that a lot,” said Freisatz of re-creating his paintings. “He’d be completely done and not be satisfied.”
Rockwell gave Freisatz the painting, which she carried with her for years before finally having it framed. She ultimately donated the original to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., which made copies for her and for her daughter and son and her siblings.
“We just can’t see keeping things to ourselves forever,” she said matter-of-factly, when asked why she donated her beloved picture. “Anyway, which kid do you give them to?”
Her siblings have donated their original paintings, too. Her brother, Bud, who was a frequent model, especially for Scout pictures, donated his Scout picture to the museum. And her sister donated her Santa picture.
“We were the first ones to get lifetime memberships to the museum,” said Freisatz.
The home that Freisatz has shared with her husband, Bob, for nearly half a century, has works by other artists as well. In the study is a print, “Sugaring in Vermont,” by Mead Schaeffer, one of a colony of artists in West Arlington, depicting her father pouring maple sap and her mother, again from the rear, driving a team of horses to pull the sap vat through the Vermont woods.
In the Freisatzes’ living room is a painting by Gene Pelham, who worked as Rockwell’s photographer, taking pictures of carefully-posed models from which Rockwell would paint. Pelham’s painting is of the famous red, covered bridge on Route 313 in West Arlington.
Just past the bridge is the white-steepled church and the village green that fronted Freisatz’s girlhood home. Next door to the white 19th-century farmhouse was the even older home of the Rockwells, now an inn. (Her home was built for the daughter of the original owner of Rockwell’s home, said Freisatz.) Out of view is a one-room schoolhouse that Freisatz attended for six years. After the war, Rockwell used it to train other artists, she said. Behind are the Green Mountains.
“The frame is made out of the wood from the old bridge,” says Freisatz. “It had to be reconstructed.”
“What America is built on”
At the center of Freisatz’s living room is a dovetailed hope chest from her late mother’s house, now sold out of the family. The sturdy chest is laden with books about Norman Rockwell and his paintings.
As Freisatz pages through the books, she recalls what it was like to model for Rockwell. “You just went next door. It was very informal,” she said.
Everyone in her family her grandmother, Elva Edgerton; her parents, Clara and James Edgerton; and her siblings, Edith, James, known as Buddy, and Ardis all modeled for Rockwell.
Once, Rockwell even used Buddy’s 4-H prize-winning cow as a model for Mrs. O’Leary’s cow of Chicago fire fame.
The artist paid his models five dollars for each session, she said. “Each time you posed, you got it right afterwards. People later weren’t cashing the checks. They didn’t need the money. We were thrilled to get the money.”
Life on the Edgertons’ dairy farm wasn’t easy. “My father lost all of his cows to disease one year,” said Freisatz. “Another year, the barn floor fell in. They were all fastened to their stanchions and were strangled. We buried them in the bone yard. You just kept going.”
Occasionally, her father borrowed money from Rockwell, she said, “which he always paid back.”
Freisatz’s mother, a petite woman, earned extra money carrying Rockwell’s enormous paintings to his publisher in Philadelphia. “She’d drive to Albany and then take a train to Philadelphia,” said Freisatz. “She was a small person but very strong.”
The hardest to bear, though, wasn’t a financial loss. “My baby brother was born with spinal bifida,” said Freisatz. “He went through two costly surgeries to close his brain and spine. But he died. A lot of bad things happened, but you go on. Vermonters are tough…This is what America is built on. I had ancestors that came over on The Mayflower. They had to survive that first winter.”
Although Freisatz is proud of her rural Vermont heritage, she settled here.
“When you were a kid, you felt you had to get out,” Freisatz said of the hard work of Vermont farm life. She worked as a waitress and as a chambermaid to save money for college. “We go back, but it’s not the same,” she said of visiting. “The farm is sold. People have died.”
Rockwell died in the fall of 1978; her parents went to his funeral. Her father died the next March. Her mother died last year.
She reiterated, “You go on.”
“The everyday life of my neighbors”
“Moving to Arlington had given my work a terrific boost...,” Rockwell wrote in his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator. “Now my pictures grew out of the world around me, the everyday life of my neighbors.”
He had lived in New Rochelle but moved to Arlington for a simpler life. He first lived in a house on the Battenkill, but after his studio there burned he moved to the house in West Arlington, next to the Edgertons.
“We didn’t know he was famous for years and years,” said Freisatz. “He was very modest.”
He arrived in Arlington in 1939 and left for Stockbridge, Mass. in 1953.
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s when his best work was done,” said Freisatz of his Arlington years.
As she looks through the pictures, Freisatz reminisces over those who peopled her childhood village.
“That’s Art Becktoft,” she says, pointing to a picture of the young man in ‘Back to Civies,’ smiling in front of his bedroom mirror as he tries on a too-small suit, leaving his uniform draped over the chair beside him.
“He was a pilot from our town. It was in a little valley with mountains on both sides. He brought his plane through that valley; it was a big one. Planes were unusual then. We’d run out to look. This big plane filled the whole valley,” recalled Freisatz. “He tipped his wing.”
Becktoft was shot down in his plane during the war and placed in a prisoner-of-war camp, she said, but eventually made it home.
“The only professional model he had in Arlington came with stockings on and was dolled up,” recalled Freisatz.
She points to a picture in one of her books of the finished painting of a woman in patriotic red-and-white striped pants.
“He called me over. I had kind of scrunchy, blue socks on that slipped down into my shoes,” she recalled.
Rockwell painted her feet under the model’s striped pant legs. “Those are my legs and socks and saddle shoes,” said Freisatz.
Another painting, “Coming and Going,” depicts an energetic family, heading out with enthusiastic faces, seen through the windows of a big automobile and then, underneath, shows the same family, heading the other way, with faces that show exhaustion.
“Grandma Edgerton is the only one in the picture that looks the same coming and going,” says Freisatz. “Believe me, that’s the way she looked all the while, with that stern jaw. She’d say, ‘I’m stubborn and proud of it.’ She was a typical Vermonter.”
Freisatz’s younger sister, Ardis, modeled for Rockwell’s picture of a babysitter, reading a book, You’re in Charge, about her job as she holds a squalling baby.
Ultimately another model was used for the picture. “Mr. Rockwell told her she was too good-looking to be that harried girl,” recalls Freisatz.
That picture took on special meaning for Freisatz after she left Vermont for school in Rochester. She went to the Eastman Dental Dispensary for Dental Hygienists, and became a dental- health teacher, eventually settling in the Capital Region where she met Robert Freisatz at a church function. Now retired, he worked for General Electric as a designer for 25 years, then as a facilities planner in research and design.
Freisatz earned her room and board at college by babysitting for the Sterling family.
“When I was to graduate, I went to the Rockwells and said I didn’t have money left to buy something for the Sterlings. She recalls going upstairs in Rockwell’s studio. “I got up all my nerve and asked if he had any little thing to give the Sterlings,” she recalls.
He gave her a big picture of the babysitter, in an early version.
Freisatz’s older sister, Edith, a redhead, is in a scene in an art gallery. “A man is walking through a gallery with an empty frame and she’s one of the pictures on the wall,” said Freisatz. “She always said he felt sorry for her because she hadn’t been in any pictures. She was a shoulder.”
The faces in Rockwell’s Arlington paintings resonate with Freisatz.
She remembers Mary Whalen a model in many of Rockwell’s paintings, most famously smiling as she sits in front of the principal’s office with a black eye. “I remember her from the playground,” says Freisatz. “She was a fun little kid.”
She remembers the model for Rosie the Riveter, too, as the woman who served as operator for the local phone system.
Rockwell used to work at the Arlington dance hall, she said, which raised money for the grange. “He would sell tickets,” said Freisatz. “That’s where he was getting his models...He would say, ‘Who was that?’ I like their face.’”
The models have had reunions, which are fun, says Freisatz, but lately the ranks of the Arlington models are thinning. “People are kind of dying out,” she says. “Now it’s mostly Stockbridge; they’re a different class of people...rich, professional people.”
She describes the Arlington residents as “good-hearted.” Freisatz goes on, “Some of them were characters. They’re real and he knew which characteristics to emphasize.”
Advice and inspiration
Not only did the Edgertons serve as models for Rockwell, they also were among those he consulted for advice on his paintings and they offered inspiration as well.
“He always wanted advice,” said Freisatz. “He’d say, ‘You only have one chance to see a picture for the first time.’ He would ask, ‘How did that strike you?’ He sincerely wanted to know.”
Rockwell’s most famous paintings are “The Four Freedoms,” to which a special room is devoted in the Stockbridge museum.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had given a speech in 1941 about the essence of American democracy, the four basic human freedoms that must be defended freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Rockwell wanted to paint them but didn’t know how. In 1942, at an Arlington town meeting, after the high school in town had burned, Freisatz’s father spoke out against plans for building a new school.
“My father didn’t agree with what they were saying. He stood up and the others allowed him to speak...When Mr. Rockwell went home, he said, ‘I know my next painting.’
He decided to paint “Freedom of Speech” a man in work clothes, speaking out, while those sitting around him wear suits and the other freedoms as they were practiced by everyday Americans.
Ultimately, Rockwell used Carl Hess, not James Edgerton, as his model in “Freedom of Speech.”
“He ran the garage in town,” said Freisatz. “Someone said that the reason he picked Carl was because he looked more like Abraham Lincoln.”
She concluded the tale, “My father ended up working on the new high school as a carpenter.”
In 1964, when Rockwell was 70, he painted “The Problem We All Live With” for Look magazine. A young African-American girl, in a crisp white dress, clasping school books, pencils, and a ruler, walks resolutely between two pairs of escorts men whose heads aren’t visible; their arm bands say “Deputy U.S. Marshall.” Much of the huge canvas the space between the small girl and her escorts is a blank wall against which a tomato has been smashed.
“This is the only one Bob ever saw him working on,” says Freisatz of her husband. “After he married his third wife, Molly, who had been a teacher, he became very sensitive to prejudice.”
“Mary had been a teacher, too,” said Freisatz. “I just loved her.” She had died at age 51, much younger than Rockwell.
“From years of putting him first, she became psychologically not happy,” said Freisatz. “That’s why they moved to Stockbridge. She had been going back and forth for psychological treatment. It became very wearing. She never did recover.”
Rockwell married a woman close to his age who had not been married before and who looked like him, “like they were cut from the same cloth,” said Freisatz.
As he worked on the school integration picture, Rockwell portrayed the girl’s face in different ways and asked the Freisatzes which they preferred. “I didn’t think she should be smiling,” says Freisatz. “She should be determined, maybe a little frightened.”
Freisatz also had a story about the smashed tomato. “Molly had worked hard on her tomatoes,” she said; most of her gardening had been flowers and she was proud of her ripe, plump tomatoes.
“He threw the tomatoes on the fence so he could paint it realistically,” Freisatz said. “She was very angry.”
Freisatz concluded of the painting, “It was quite a change from the cutesy, folksy stuff or the war.”