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Behind the Lens of Norman Rockwell

Welcome to a town suitable for framing.

The town of Stockbridge, Mass., is a slice of American culture so rich it could represent a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting.

In fact, Stockbridge represents several scenes in Rockwell’s body of work.

The town and its people are exactly what the famous illustrator used to render hundreds of Americana images during the second half of a career that spanned nearly 60 years.

Betsy Campbell Manning was 9 years old when she posed with two friends for a photo in 1957 in Stockbridge. The photo was used by Rockwell for his work “Missing Tooth.”

“At the time, I had no idea what was going on,” says Manning, now 61. Her father is also immortalized in another Rockwell classic—he’s the doctor in “Before the Shot,” which hangs in waiting rooms across the country.

“The iconic Rockwell look was made possible by his family, his neighbors and others surrounding him. Rockwell lived in this town, and it was his stage,” says Jeremy Clowe, director of media services for the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

How Rockwell captured those images is the focus of a new exhibit at the museum, “Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera,” which runs through May 31. It features the staged photos Rockwell commissioned to create his original illustrations, and some of the illustrations themselves. A companion book by Ron Schick explores how Rockwell used photography as a tool throughout his career.

Rockwell model Wray Gunn Jr., 56, fondly remembers posing for photos and then seeing the illustration published nationwide.

“As a kid I was just like, ‘Look at this. I’m in a magazine,’” says Gunn. “But the history is unbelievable.”

At age 9 Gunn and his 6-year-old cousin Tracey Gunn posed as the brother and sister in the work “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” also known as “Moving Day.” The illustration is among Rockwell’s most recognized pieces.

Appearing in the May 16, 1967, issue of Look magazine, the illustration depicts two black children standing by a moving van as their furniture is unloaded. The young boy (Wray) is holding a baseball glove, and the girl (Tracey) is holding a white cat. In front of them are three white children and a black dog. A white woman peers from a window.

Gunn recalls he and Tracey had a marathon session at Rockwell’s studio, posing for a photographer hired by Rockwell, with a cat that was “the most miserable animal.”

“Tracey was 40 pounds and the cat was 20,” Gunn says with a laugh. “It was a huge cat.”

“I don’t remember anything about the photo, but I have a print in my house,” says Gunn’s cousin, now Tracey G. Williams, a 48-year-old Pentagon employee, wife and mother in Woodbridge, Va. “I think back and realize now that it was an honor to be a part of that history.”

That history includes two of Rockwell’s works painted during the civil rights movement. “New Kids” was the artist’s interpretation of a black family moving into a white suburban neighborhood. “The Problem We All Live With” was a nod to Ruby Bridges, a Louisiana girl who integrated an elementary school with the assistance of federal marshals.

For both illustrations, Rockwell called on the Gunn family to model. Tracey’s sister, Anita, and her cousin Linda Gunn became the composite used for Ruby Bridges.

According to Wray Gunn Jr., Rockwell and Gunn family patriarch David Gunn Sr., who was Wray’s grandfather, had a warm relationship. Rockwell would often tell David Gunn what type of models he needed, and Gunn would rally his family members. Sometimes, Rockwell would contact the family member directly.

Elaine Gunn, Tracey’s mother, says she gave both of her daughters her permission to model for Rockwell because she admired his work. And at the time there were only two black families in the Stockbridge area, where racism was subtle.

“I was glad in a sense that Rockwell was seeing what was happening throughout the country. Neighborhoods were changing and it was a fact of life whether people liked it or not,” says Elaine Gunn.

Wray Gunn says museum visitors are flabbergasted when he tells them he modeled for one of Rockwell’s better-known works. If they’re doubtful, he’ll go and stand by the illustration, and then watch their surprised expressions when they see the resemblance, he says. It’s almost like being a celebrity.

His cousin Tracey gets the same treatment.

“I go home every year and when I go to the museum, I’m treated like a rock star,” she explains with a modest laugh. Her twin daughters, Keshia and Marissa, get a kick out of it, too.

But, Williams says, there’s so much more to being a Rockwell model.

“This is a small group who are part of history. The models are getting older and older, and Rockwell is gone,” she says. “It’s just an honor to share this history with others.”

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