Making Rockwells look their best for Howland exhibition

HOWLAND — Between his years as gallery director at Trumbull Art Gallery and curating shows in other spaces, William Mullane estimates that he’s hung about 300 exhibitions.

“The Rockwell American Scouting Art Collection” is unlike any of them.

Some of it is the prestige of the work. The show is culled from the art collection of the Boy Scouts of America, which Medici Museum of Art became the custodians of earlier this year. It includes 65 original works by 20th century artist / illustrator Norman Rockwell, whose work is known even by those who’ve never set foot in a museum.

Some of it is the anticipation. The effort to bring the collection to the Mahoning Valley is more than a year in the making.

The Butler Institute of American Art’s decision in late 2018 to table a plan to become custodians of the art led Foundation Medici, which donated the land and much of the construction costs for the building that operated as the Butler’s Trumbull branch, to sever its relationship with the Butler and establish itself as an independent museum.

The anticipation will last a while longer. On Monday the Medici announced it was postponing private events this weekend and the public opening on Sunday of the exhibition. But Mullane shared details last week about the unique process he used to figure out the best way to present the collection in the galleries designed by the late architect Thomas Schroth.

One thing that made this show unique is the time Mullane had to plan it.

“Most of the shows I do come in on Saturday or Sunday and have to be up by Friday,” he said. “Very seldom do I have access to photographs with the sizes and that information. It just doesn’t happen in the real world. When I’m doing a show at Trumbull Art Gallery or the last one here, all of the pieces show up and you do the calculations and the installation.”

Michael Roytek, manager of photography for the BSA, photographed each piece in the collection to document its condition when the works were delivered to Medici in January. Digital copies of those photos were given to the museum.

Mullane had playing card-sized copies of the Rockwells made so he could experiment with arranging them in different configurations.

“One of the questions was how do you present the Norman Rockwells,” Mullane said. “A lot were saying, go chronological, go from beginning to end. There was a lot of debate about that, but ultimately the thought was you can tell a story, you can see his thinking by looking at them thematically and seeing them together.”

Mullane grouped the works by different themes, such as scouting and family, the jamboree, works that reference history, scouts in adventure and scouts learning.

The first grouping visitors will see is scouting’s impact on the family.

“Rockwell was particularly good about showing the relationship between older brothers and younger brothers,” Mullane said. “It runs through a lot of the paintings, and these paintings demonstrate in a really interesting way his ability to tell a story through composition.”

One painting shows a child putting on his first Boy Scout uniform and leaving his Cub Scout uniform behind. Another shows the younger brother watching his older brother go off to camp. A third, which Mullane called probably “the most adorable” painting in the collection, shows a young boy wearing the oversized uniform of his older brother.

Some pieces are grouped stylistically, like Rockwell’s tight portraits that feature several people packed together in the frame. Mullane said the works show the influence of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” on Rockwell.

“He became very famous for these tight portraits in other realms of his career,” Mullane said.

Once Mullane had his pieces grouped thematically, the images were printed a second time on a larger scale, about 11 inches by 17 inches. Medici Manager Tom Hazen taped those copies to white paper cut to the exact dimensions of the actual painting.

“For a show like this, it’s a little easier not to have to overly handle the work, and it was nice not to have to measure around it,” Mullane said. “I can place these on the wall and then I can measure.”

He also was able to jot notes in the white space that he could refer to when hanging each piece.

The way the gallery space is designed, there are four short walls that are best used to showcase a single painting. Mullane tried to find works that stood on their own for those locations.

The first painting visitors will see if they walk through the gallery clockwise from the entrance is a painting celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Boy Scouts.

“This one spoke to a long period of history,” Mullane said. “Any time Rockwell introduces script and with the gold leaf, this is just a particularly good piece.”

The largest and most dramatic piece in the adventure series gets one of the anchor slots, and another large work that didn’t thematically with any of the others get the third position.

For the final painting, Mullane selected a self-portrait, a 1969 painting that shows Rockwell demonstrating his technique for a group of scouts.

“If you look very closely, I don’t know if he never finished or if he planned it this way for amusement, but the left leg of the scout directly behind his head is not painted in,” he said. “I found that kind of interesting.”

The back of the gallery includes some other pieces from the collection, including three works by Walt Disney that incorporate some of his famous animated creations and large-scale works by renowned illustrator J. C. Leyendecker.

Visitors also will find a couple drawings by Rockwell as well as the painting created from one of them. And a non-scouting work by Rockwell shows a boy with puppies.

“It may be the most popular piece in the show,” Mullane said. “It will remind people of his calendar work and his Saturday Evening Post work.”