Rosie and Me

My brush with greatness at Crystal Bridges

I’m an art geek. Seeing a famous piece of art that I have admired in person is much more exciting than seeing a celebrity. I get a little giddy.

Last December I got my first chance to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art – it’s located in Bentonville, Arkansas and it’s simply amazing. Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of Washington, Maxfield Parish’s Lanterns, Thomas Hart Benton, Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein, Winslow Homer – and many more, so many I had admired based on a photo in a textbook or a slide on a classroom wall – here in the flesh in Arkansas. It was like a feast, wonders around every corner. I savored them all passing from gallery to gallery. And then I saw Rosie…

Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell

As a child learning to draw I would study photos of Norman Rockwell’s work – noticing the play of light and shadow on his figure’s skin, marveling at his stunning photorealistic character studies, his elevation of the “everyman” to almost monumental status. Even before I understood its meaning, Rosie was my favorite. She was a strong woman who wore overalls and used power tools! As a teen I often dressed like her – overalls and buttons with penny loafers. I still have a pair of sunglasses that look like goggles. If I were invited to a costume party tomorrow I could pull off a fair Rosie.

As I began to understand her place in history I saw Rosie as someone like my grandmother who went to work during the war – she was no riveter – she was a butcher. But she went to work during the war and she was never content to sit at home as a housewife again. She did a man’s job when almost all jobs were reserved for men, and she did it as well as any man could. She was ahead of her time by more than 30 years.

Did you know that Rockwell based Rosie on the figure of the Prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel? Her pose is almost identical. That’s the magic of Rockwell – this young woman shares the same grace as a prophet in one of the most famous works of art on the planet. She matters.

The Prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

I was a fine art major in college. Norman Rockwell’s works were often dismissed as “illustration”. I found out about this bias out the hard way. I was assigned a project in my life drawing class – I was supposed to choose a piece of art to use as a template to dissect the human form down into spheres and cylinders – exploring the geometry of the human body. I chose Rockwell’s 100th anniversary of Baseball and was told that although the forms were a good choice, Rockwell was not considered a “real artist”. My choice cost me a passing grade on the assignment. Imagine my satisfaction at seeing Rosie in a place of honor at a leading museum of American “Art”.

My visit to Crystal Bridges occurred because my flight had been delayed. I was heading home for Christmas with my family in Las Vegas. Each year I schedule an appointment with what we call the “family tattoo artist”, Serene, while I’m home for the holidays. My plan was either to add to my half sleeve or to start a leg.

My sleeve so far:

My half-sleeve. An eclectic memorial to people who I love.

Serene is a painter. I confess that I waited a long time to get my first ink – I’m a bit of an art snob and I have seen an awful lot of bad work. Meeting Serene was key for me to get started. She’s a painter so we get each other as artists. I am a collector of her paintings as well as a walking gallery of her work. She also knows color. In the sleeve above she used no white – she created the illusion of white dogwoods by using blues and greys to lighten my own skin tone.

After seeing Rosie, my plans changed – I wanted her on my leg. I stopped by Serene’s studio to see her a day before my appointment to drop off images – she told me she needed more time and that she was really excited to do a Rockwell – especially one so symbolic as Rosie. I left her my photos and she set aside her day off to work on Rosie – she told me that this wasn’t going to be something that we would finish in a day. It was a big commitment for both of us.

When I arrived she had worked out the stencil – a note about artists – you get what you pay for. The work goes beyond the session time. She spent hours getting this ready.

Serene’s reference drawing

The stencil on my leg

This was my first “portrait” style tattoo. This is done more like a painting – shading applied like an under painting, then line used to give definition. The first session was all about laying down depth. The zones on the stencil give the artists landmarks to set in that shading.

I brought along my camera – I thought it might be a good opportunity to capture some of the color of a session.

Ink Bottles

Shading Machine

As we started laying in details I saw it all coming to life – the penny loafers are one of my favorite parts of the painting – it’s where you really see Rockwell’s skill as a painter – highlight strokes. Serene has captured this better than this photo of my puffy leg shows – these were shot right after the session, but you can get the idea.

Detail of Rosie’s Loafers

Detail of my Rosie – this is the only circumstances I could imagine having a swastika on my body – crushed underfoot by the American spirit.

At the end of the first visit this is where we were. I had never ended a session with something that seemed so unfinished – but I was excited to see it progress.

Shading laid in – a hand suspended in air.

Serene had warned me that legs heal differently than arms. At the end of the third day I was one hurting unit – but I loved what I saw healing on my leg. I was scheduled to attend a trade show in Las Vegas in February so I scheduled an appointment for the day before.

Once again I brought my camera to document the process from my unique angle.

I love how some machines have this steam punk look.

Color palette for session two

Inked Serene inking me

The details started really coming together. Laying on my side I held my camera up to see what was happening on my leg.

The details of a club sandwich

My view of the progress

Here’s where we ended up after the second session – between the two sessions we have about 12 hours in this piece.

My leg after session 2. Serene photographed this one for her book.

The detail of Rosie’s face – almost painterly

I still have a session left to add the fine detail. Buttons, stitching, highlights. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying Rosie – taking her out and about.

Rosie on the trail

Recently I took my Rosie to meet the Original.

My Rosie at THE Rosie

I know it might sound extreme to tattoo a favorite painting onto your skin. I like my ink to be meaningful personally and it is, but more importantly it is personally transformative. I have always been a bit self-conscious about my appearance, never quite comfortable in my own skin. My tattoos have become my favorite thing about my appearance. I look in the mirror and I love my skin. I have claimed it as my own after decades of not liking my freckles, my pink skin, my shape. I own it.

As Rosie approaches completion, I am beginning to think about what’s next. I’ve thought about Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Maybe a mirrored Michelangelo’s Isaiah or some of my own photography. Maybe another Rockwell….

Rockwell’s Tattoo Artist – My next tattoo?