Berkshires-based artist Maurice “Pops” Peterson never planned to be involved in Civil rights work, but he says he felt “drafted” into action by his life and circumstances.  

One day, Peterson unintentionally drew a cartoon that looked like a Norman Rockwell image. This realization Peterson led to examine and recreate classic Rockwell images through his own lens as a gay Black man living in this turbulent, modern era. His most recent work puts a new spin on Norman Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges 

Peterson’s most recent work is a mural painted above Center Street in Pittsfield, entitled “Walk With her.” The piece is a re-imagining of Rockwell’s indelible image of Ruby Bridges. 

“Rockwell Revisited,” Peterson solo exhibition, is the longest-running show of its kind at the Norman Rockwell Museum. A permanent, virtual version of the exhibit lives on the museum’s website. Peterson is also a public speaker on the arts and civil rights.  

Producer Dave Fraser visited Peterson recently to discuss his work and his passion for civil rights and social justice. 

Hear Pops Peterson talk about some of his more whimsical pieces in this digital exclusive.

Read the full transcription:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Berkshires-based artist Maurice “Pops” Peterson is also a public speaker on the arts and civil rights.

His solo exhibition, “Rockwell Revisited,” is the longest running show of its kind at the Norman Rockwell Museum, with a permanent virtual version on display on the museum’s website. And his most recent work includes a re-imagining of Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges entitled “Walk with Her,” which is a mural above Center Street in Pittsfield. Producer

Dave Fraser visited with Peterson recently to discuss his work and his passion for civil rights and social justice.

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: Norman Rockwell’s “For Freedom” series toured the United States in 2018 in celebration of its 75th anniversary.

But it is the interpretation of these classic images by Berkshire artists Pops Peterson that has perhaps given Mr. Rockwell’s work renewed life.

Maurice “Pops” Peterson, Berkshires Artist: And I thought it would be really cool to walk around Stockbridge, where Norman Rockwell did his pictures and found his models, and just redo what he did as if it was happening now.

I thought it would be really cool, and maybe at the museum they might like it, I might be able to have a little show in a basement room or something one day and have my friends over. It would just be fun!

Dave Fraser: Peterson’s work, entitled “Reinventing Rockwell,” emulates the iconic illustrator style while tackling contemporary issues of diversity, social justice and what it means to be an American.

Maurice “Pops” Peterson: People of color have been always left out of the American landscape. We’d always been kept out of that picture. Norman Rockwell himself had been forbidden to do any main characters who are not white.

So, I just re-did his thing with a whole different cast, and I, with the civil rights community, just basically drafted me because they said, “Wow, this is really important work you’re doing.”

Dave Fraser: Using photography and digital technology, Peterson reinterprets the placid bedtime ritual of a white family in “Freedom From Fear” to “Freedom From What?”, making it a Black family, with dad looking anxiously over his shoulder at what may be happening outside his window.

Another adaptation was “Thanksgiving Gay Dinner,” a gleeful take on “Freedom From Want.” In Peterson’s version, the holiday meal is hosted by an interracial, same sex couple, which happens to be himself and his husband, Mark Johnson.

Inspired by Rockwell’s 1943 “Freedom of Speech,” Peterson says his work represents those who have been marginalized and have fought for inclusion in the political process.

“Freedom to Worship” was re-imagined to include and respect all faiths and non-faith traditions, and also reflect the diversity of the Berkshire region’s residents.

Maurice “Pops” Peterson: It was teaching people, you know what it’s like to be on the other side. It’s been the most unexpected and the most gratifying thing that’s really ever happened to me.

Dave Fraser: Along this journey, Peterson, who co-owns Seven Salon in Stockbridge with his husband, discovered many parallels between himself and the iconic artist.

Maurice “Pops” Peterson: Our salon is actually right across the street from the House where Norman Rockwell lived his final years and died. And, at that point, this building was a funeral home, so they brought his body here and he was actually embalmed right in our staff room.

Dave Fraser: Rockwell’s highly recognized image of the Civil Eights Movement, “The Problem We All Live With,” features six- year-old Ruby Bridges on her way to an all-white New Orleans public school in 1960.

Just recently, Peterson transformed Ruby into a 28 foot high mural above Center Street in downtown Pittsfield, in recognition of the Jubilee Hill neighborhood.

Maurice “Pops” Peterson: It uses Ruby Bridges image by Norman Rockwell, re-imagined as Rainbow Ruby, so she includes everybody now. So, all kinds of people — color, immigrants, gay people, trans people, all are represented in Ruby.

It’s in this location, because back in the 70s, this is a whole different urban landscape, and it was changed for an urban renewal project. And everybody who lived here had to move. They were all kicked out, and she represents anybody who’s gone through some adversity, who have had to endure hardships. But it just represents that you need to walk on.

Dave Fraser: Although Pops Peterson never planned to be involved in civil rights work, his “Reinventing Rockwell” series and other works around the Berkshires have given him the opportunity to share what life was like for him — and what his hopes are for the future.

Maurice “Pops” Peterson: I’m somebody who’s come from a very dark place. Being Black, and by being gay, and feeling that the world was just angled against them, you know? And that you would never really, really be free, that you’d never be happy, that you’d never have a love of your own or a world where you could just be proud and walk down the street.

And, I’m just doing my part so that clock won’t turn back…and that we can keep on being free and living the lives that we were born to live.