In ‘Finding Home’ artists tell stories of travel at the Norman Rockwell Museum

In Walnut Creek, Calif., a young mother walks into the library and finds a refuge. Yuyi Morales came with her young son Kelly from Mexico to the Bay Area, where his father’s family lived.

Migrantes, you and I,” she writes in her awardwinning book, Dreamers. “The sky and the land welcomed us in words unlike those of our ancestors.” 

In the illustration she holds her young son, and the red ribbon in her hair adds a touch of color to a grey day. That welcome can have an edge to it. In the sky, words form backwards like fingers writing on a fogged window — say something. Speak English.

When she came to California, at first she spoke only Spanish. At the library she could could learn English. She and her son could look at picture books. Her own illustrations brim with the ideas they found, constellations and fish swimming off the reef, and monarch butterflies that migrate more than a thousand miles, from the Rocky Mountains to the pine-oak forests of Michoacan.

“We are two languages,” she writes, exploring her new home with her son. “We are resilience …”

She lives in Mexico now, a Caldecott Honor artist and six-time Pura Belpré winner, and she is joining artists Frances Jetter, David Macaulay and James McMullan in a group show, Finding Home at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Along with their work, people who have come to the Berkshires from many parts of the world will tell their stories in oral histories.

Deputy director and chief curator Stephanie Plunkett walks through the galleries, introducing the artists from different directions — Jetter, an awardwinning illustrator known for art books that speak to social and political activism; Macaulay, a Caldecott medalist and MacArthur fellow known for his eye for engineering and architecture in books like How Things Work; James McMullan, known for ink and watercolor theater posters for the Lincoln Center.

Together, she said, they are telling the story of coming to another country, the experience of leaving all you know, having to adapt, being seen as different, and finding solace in the love of family and friends and in a sense of accomplishment.

Crossing the Atlantic by steam

Macaulay was 10 years old, in 1957, when he and his mother and brothers came from England to New Jersey on the S.S. United States. In Crossing on Time, he tells the story through the story of the ship.

It was the fastest ship ever built, he said by phone from his studio in Vermont — with high-pressure steam and turbines, it could cross the Atlantic in three and a half days. It was a technological marvel then. It was designed by an engineer worked for the U.S. Navy in World War II, compact enough to carry soldiers in the event of another war.

He had not imagined his book in an exhibit like this, he said, and he would not at all compare his adjustment to New Jersey with a family crossing the desert, or learning a new language, or working in the sweat shops of the lower East Side. 

But as he thinks over his story, he finds common ground.

His parents were practical and courageous people, he said. They had both served in the Royal Air Force in World War II They told stories from their days in Manchester in the blitz — one morning they woke up to find the building next door was gone. Rubble.

“If you can survive that,” he said, “you can tackle anything.”

In 1957 they were living in the north of England and raising three children. Bolton was a town of rows and rows and rows of brick houses, Macaulay said. England was still recovering from the war. Food rationing was still in place. 

His father got the offer of a job in the U.S. because he ran high-speed knitting machines in a woolens factory. And for Macaulay, New Jersey with its garden apartments, lawns and trees had space, and it had schools where his drawing earned attention. In the rigorously hierarchical British system, it could be harder to get an education. 

“We were no kind of class,” he said. “… I could have been a milkman.”

But here, a few years after the move, he was studying architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Awardwinning artist David Macaulay's Ships Cross the Atlantic appears at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
David Macaulay

Awardwinning artist David Macaulay's Ships Cross the Atlantic appears at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

From Poland to the lower East Side

Jetter’s grandfather, Abram Goldstein, also came to New York City for a job in a clothing factory. He left Poland in 1911, and he worked in the garment district. He became a union organizer, Plunkett said, in the galvanizing years around the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

In Amalgam, Jetter tells his story in a series of linoleum prints that took her 10 years, Plunkett said. 

Some memories are painful. Abe would not let his children play with toys — he made his daughter, Rose (Frances’ mother) throw her only one, a paper doll, out of a trolley car window.

But here Frances’ grandmother is learning to read through a children’s encyclopedia. Here her aunt is cooking in the family kitchen in Bed Stuy. They lived in apartments in the same building, shared hand-me-downs and meals. Later they bought a cottage upstate and stayed together in the summers.

Leaving China in the war

McMullan also crossed the ocean. He grew up in China, in the town of Cheefoo on the Shantung peninsula, before World War II. His grandparents had come as missionaries, Plunkett said. That region of China had suffered a tremendous droubt. She paused at a landscape showing a tower in the cemetery. Families would leave infant girls there, she said quietly, when they could not afford to feed them. 

McMullan’s grandparents took in the babies and founded an orphanage, Plunkett said. Some mothers who had given them up came back as nurses. His family taught the young women fine needlework, and in his father’s generation they had grown a successful business and lived comfortably — until the war came.

McMullan’s father served as an officer in the British army, Plunkett said. When the Japanese army occupied their town, McMullan and his mother left on one of the last ships out of Shanghai, in a journey that would lead to Canada, to the strait of Georgia and to Darjeeling, in India.

Plunkett sees the influence of Chinese scroll paintings in his artwork. His shadows fall in deep dusky blue, and small figures move across a wide landscape, in small moments that will change their lives.

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