STOCKBRIDGE -- Blood relations can sometimes offer hereditary clues to someone’s predisposition, or draw no parallels between family members. This winter, the Normal Rockwell Museum is banking on the former, offering a show on the works of artist Mary-Amy Orpen Cross (1922-2010), a younger cousin of the institutions’ namesake.
Jeremy Clowe, the NRM’s manager of media services, said Cross’ art is already known in certain New England arts and crafts circles. Displayed in "All in the Rockwell Family: The Art of Mary-Amy Cross," it showed the spirit, if not much of the talent, of her celebrated relative.
"Personally and artistically, it is nice to learn about Mary-Amy Cross’ connection to her cousin, Norman Rockwell," Clowe said. "From her illustration work and watercolor landscapes to her unique painted beach rocks, Cross proves that creativity was a definite thread throughout Rockwell’s entire family tree. Norman Rockwell Museum is proud to be able to share Cross’ work, in a variety of different mediums, with a larger, appreciative audience."
The show developed as a result of the NRM’s interest in retaining information about Rockwell’s family ties, and Cross’ recent death. NRM senior curator Stephanie Plunkett said the museum was contacted by members of the Cross family. When she visited with them they discussed the family connection and shared Cross’ work.
"We are often asked questions regarding the artistic inclinations of Norman Rockwell’s family, and thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to showcase another family member’s work," Plunkett said. "We have exhibited the art of [sons] Jarvis Rockwell and Peter Rockwell, in the past, and are finding that visitors are most interested in Mary-Amy’s art."
Evolution of an artist
Raised in Providence, R.I., Cross dreamed of being an artist, and Rockwell recognized her talent by financing her education. In 1942, she graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn as an illustration major and entered the field.
In her commercial career, she illustrated books for children, and designed cards for the Norcross Greeting Card Company. Cross further explored the medium of watercolor in personal works that reflected her love of nature, travel, and the act of painting.
While raising her three sons outside of Boston, Cross created a studio in her dining room where she could be engaged with her family and art. She later embarked on a series of realist paintings on a unique substrait, rocks. Cross selected them for their shape and texture while on walks along the shore or in the countryside.
"Her children mentioned her use of the dining room as a studio, a room that only was available for meals on major holidays," she said. "Cross worked consistently both at home and during their travels."
Plunkett said Rockwell encouraged his young cousin in her pursuit of a career as an artist. Along with supporting her studies, he purchased many of her art supplies. Mary-Amy visited the Rockwell family on weekends in Arlington, Vt., and the cousins had developed a warm rapport, Plunkett said.
"All in The Rockwell Family" includes almost 50 works of art, spanning the course of Cross’ life. These include watercolor paintings, illustrated diaries in ink and gouache, and rocks painted with acrylics.
"Cross did create narrative pictures, particularly early in life," Plunkett said. "She also created picture diaries that documented her daily life for more than 20 years. Later in life, she focused on landscape painting, bringing paper and paints along as she traversed the globe."
Plunkett noted that the closest similarity between Rockwell and Cross is that they were "both artists at heart, and worked consistently to communicate through art as a matter of course."
Cross’ aforementioned paintings on rocks are perhaps her best-known works. She had once read an article about someone who painted on rocks, and tried it. Cross’ children told Plunkett she enjoyed walks through nature and at the beach, and would look closely for stones that she thought would suit her.
"Stones suggested particular characters or objects, and many tricked the eye, like her cucumbers, onions, and cracked eggs, as well as her sleeping cat," Plunkett said. "Her technical detail is quite amazing on these unique works of art; they are a special part of the exhibition."
Plunkett emphasized that while Cross wasn’t widely known and rarely exhibited her work, she continued working and experimenting because that’s how she processed and recorded her experiences.
"Mary-Amy’s art reveals the joy and satisfaction of creation," she said. "She did not need a camera. She painted her memories in a very personal way, and we are thrilled to share them with our visitors."
"All in the Rockwell Family: The Art of Mary-Amy Cross," will run through Feb. 3 at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Info: 413-298-4100 or visit www.nrm.org.