One of the most famous American painters and illustrators, Norman Rockwell produced pithy artwork to promote democracy and civic engagement in his time. Now, a museum in Massachusetts dedicated to him asked artists to design “get out the vote” posters for 2020.
The Unity Project debuted on Tuesday, National Voters Registration Day, on the Norman Rockwell Museum’s website. It features six original pieces specially commissioned for the campaign from a diverse group of artists: Mai Ly Degnan, Rudy Gutierrez, Anita Kunz, Tim O’Brien, Whitney Sherman and Yuko Shimizu.
On the same page, voters can register for the 2020 election and share the artwork to promote the cause. Among those who were inspired to share the campaign on their social media profiles is 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who posted about the initiative on Instagram.
“This idea was sparked in conversation with patrons who said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was an artist who could paint a poster like Rockwell did during World War II that would inspire everybody to vote?’ And it led me to think – we can do that,” Norman Rockwell Museum Director Laurie Norton Moffatt told CNN.
The project came together in a matter of six weeks, Norton Moffatt explained, and it was the first time the museum worked with illustrators to commission and publish artwork in a digital format.
“At a time when many of us feel life has closed in, during this pandemic, we found a way to burst those walls wide open and put the museum’s work to good in the world by inspiring everyone to vote,” Norton Moffatt said.
The posters will be exhibited online and at the museum until Election Day, and physical copies will enter the museum’s permanent collection.
One message, many perspectives
Each poster paints a picture of diversity to illustrate the need for people to engage in the democratic process in 2020.
Women are prominently featured by the artists. “That was an interesting cultural moment, I think, in this 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote which was being commemorated in August, when we first put the commission out,” Norton Moffatt noted.
In Mai Ly Degnan’s artwork, a diverse group of women wearing masks that say “vote” are casting their ballot. One of them wears a T-shirt that reads “Defend Democracy,” which is the title of the piece.
“Using colorful masks, I wanted to illustrate women ‘defending democracy,’ highlighting and acknowledging the fact that we are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. The word VOTE on the individual masks is there to symbolize this is not the time to be silent or sit this one out,” Degnan said in a statement.
In “Sacred Scream / Humanity, Not Politics,” artist Rudy Gutierrez chose to show an Black woman raising her fist and shouting, her skin ornate with messages like “We The People,” the image of a barbed wire fence superimposed on her a reference to the detention of migrants at the US southern border.
“I feel a deep sense of responsibility as a person of color, specifically of Puerto Rican heritage to tell our stories particularly from our point of view,” Gutierrez told CNN. With his piece, Gutierrez said, “my aim is to voice the idea that ‘We the People’ have the power.”
In her piece titled “Defend Democracy (Lady Liberty),” artist Yuko Shimizu reimagined the Statue of Liberty as a superheroine, draped in the American flag, her torch replaced by a flaming fist. “Each individual voter is, in a way, a superhero. This is a beauty of democracy, and we have to keep this intact,” Shimizu told CNN.
A Japanese immigrant to the US, Shimizu reflected on how American politics impact her life, although she can’t personally vote. “As an artist, the least I can do is to participate and illustrate a poster to ask those who can to go and vote. And to defend democracy,” Shimizu said.
Anita Kunz’s artwork shows five hands of diverse skin tones reaching for the sky – a message above them reads “Every Vote Counts,” which is the title of the piece.
Kuntz told CNN she became a US citizen 15 years ago. “There are so many amazing cultures within the country. And of course the most important thing for everyone to feel included is for everyone to vote,” she noted.
In “Vote: Defend Democracy,” artist Whitney Sherman played with typefaces and patterns, using the word “VOTE” to mesh the American flag with images depicting people protesting, over a background inspired by the natural world, which Sherman says “we are fighting to preserve.” Peeking out from the letter O, a Brown woman raises her fist, she wears a T-shirt that says “Defend Democracy.”
Sherman told CNN she was inspired by visuals made for initiatives like the Women’s March, and that even though she is not an overly political person, she votes in every election, local, state and national.
“The pandemic shouldn’t and won’t stop an election, just as the burning of Washington, DC during the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II and 9/11 didn’t. Mask up or mail-in!,” Sherman said.
In his piece titled “Vote,” artist Tim O’Brien updated the famous image of Rosie the Riveter produced by J. Howard Miller in 1942. In Miller’s poster, a White woman flexes her bicep, her hand in a tight fist. In O’Brien’s version, a Black woman holds the exclamation point to a message that reads “Vote!”
“In sketching around, I decided that many of us feel that everyone must register and everyone must vote. So I thought that holding an exclamation point was a good move,” O’Brien told CNN.
“Black women have had a really powerful role in the primary season this year, and I expect them to continue that in November. So it seems to me that having a Black woman tell us to vote, they are speaking from a position of having done the work,” O’Brien added.
Norman Rockwell’s legacy
Norman Rockwell’s illustrations punctuated pivotal moments in history and unified Americans around democratic ideals. The artist’s legacy lives on with this project.
“I think what artists are able to do is give people hope, and this is something Rockwell did all through the 65 years that he painted, but especially so during times of global adversity, such as World War II, or national uprising, during the Civil Rights movement – really a moment like today with the Black Lives Matter movement and the continued pursuit of racial justice,” Norton Moffatt said.
The current moment of societal upheaval coincides with the coronavirus pandemic, a public health crisis of unprecedented magnitude in recent history. Norton Moffatt draws from that another lesson from Rockwell’s work and personal experience.
“Norman Rockwell experienced depression on several occasions in his life. As I studied his work and really came to know him, I observed that it was after he came through these dark patches that he would create some of his most inspiring, moving, empathetic works,” Norton Moffatt said.
“Therein is an inspiration to us all: we can survive and move through times that are difficult, and often there’s a whole new burst of creativity, or hope, or ideas that result from a time of challenge,” she added.
With the 2020 elections about five weeks away, Norton Moffatt said she hopes that during these times of great division, the power of illustration can continue bringing people together and help them find common ground.
“I see this moment of voting as a universal right. That is something that perhaps all citizens can agree is a value and a priority that we cherish in America,” Norton Moffatt said.