Norman Rockwell and his Dam Painting

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver.

“That’s a mechanical drawing . . . where’s some human interest?” posed the famous artist as he took in the vista of Arizona’s 710-foot-tall, 1,560-foot-wide Glen Canyon Dam. The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) staffers accompanying the artist—who at that point in 1969 had for over 50 years been one of America’s top chroniclers of domestic life scenes—had not considered the question. Then, W. L. “Bud” Rusho had an idea: they’d just go drive and find some folks for Norman Rockwell to insert into the painting. Problem solved!

In 1969 the BOR commissioned 40 artists to capture scenes relating to the mission of the agency or to the results of BOR projects across the West. The BOR worked with the artists to select the project or site and ultimately hundreds of pieces were created. Academics today debate the public relations purpose of the program, the quality of the art produced, and the mixed legacy of the project’s impact, with its BOR patron John DeWitt, then the agency’s public relations specialist, later accused of mismanagement and forced into retirement. This blog does not examine any of that, however, but rather focuses on the three days in October 1969 when Norman and Molly Rockwell visited the Glen Canyon Dam and its reservoir, Lake Powell.

Today the National Archives at Denver holds 14,789 cubic feet of archival records in Record Group 115, Records of the Bureau of Reclamation, and three series in this massive collection help piece together the trip and the genesis of Rockwell’s Glen Canyon Dam painting. These are “Oral History Interview Reports, 1993–2013,” “Sketches and Photographs of Artwork, 1946–1983,” and “Public Relations Photographs, 1981–1983.”

The finished Rockwell painting being admired at the Yellowstone Art Center in Billings, Montana, December 5, 1973. The artworks created for the project were put on national tour throughout the 1970s. (National Archives Identifier 562813)

In the 1990s BOR historian Brit Storey conducted dozens of oral histories with then current and former BOR staffers. The oral histories are now in our holdings both in audio cassette and published monograph form. In 1969 W. L. “Bud” Rusho worked as a public affairs officer out of the BOR’s Upper Colorado Regional Office in Salt Lake City, and he served as the primary tour guide as well as photographer for the Rockwells. We in large part glean the events of the Rockwells’ three-day visit from Rusho’s oral history.

The published copy of Public Affairs Specialist W. L. Rusho’s oral history in which he discusses the Rockwells’ visit. (National Archives Identifier 16874059)
In this excerpt Rusho recounts scrambling to find a Navajo family for Rockwell to use in his painting. (National Archives Identifier 16874059)

According to Rusho, the artists in the program were not compensated; rather, they donated the works to the agency, which entitled them to a then-available tax write-off. Artists were, however, given a free trip to a BOR site along with a tour. By the fall of 1969 Rusho had already helped with several such visits in Colorado and Utah when he received word from John DeWitt in Washington, DC, that Rockwell was heading to Page, Utah, and Rusho was to lead the trip. The arts program was DeWitt’s brainchild; he and his wife were artists themselves and good friends with many in the fine arts community. DeWitt had managed to get BOR commissioner Floyd Dominy to approve the program, and Rockwell was one of the most famous artists to sign on to it. Perhaps because of that, Rockwell was given the BOR’s newest, though arguably most environmentally controversial, dam to depict: Glen Canyon.

DeWitt made the trip to Utah to accompany the group, and Commissioner Dominy, though not partaking in the full tour, was also on hand when Rockwell and his wife arrived.

Norman and Molly Rockwell visit with the BOR Commissioner Floyd Dominy, October 18, 1969 (National Archives Identifier 562813)

The Rockwells checked into the Empire House Motel in Page, Utah, and made their preliminary greetings. Rusho recalled being starstruck and telling Rockwell how honored he was to meet such an artist, to which Rockwell smiled and replied, “I’m not an artist; I’m just an illustrator.” The next day the group drove out to view the face of the dam from a cliff to the west. Rockwell paced around, looking, with only his pipe as an accessory; Rusho noted throughout the trip that Rockwell was never without it, but never did he see it lit or smoked. The BOR staff were initially confused—was Rockwell studying the view so he could paint from memory? But then they noticed Molly Rockwell quietly taking photographs of the view from various angles.

Rockwell posing on the edge of Glen Canyon, with the dam in the background, on October 19, 1969 (National Archives Identifier 562813)
Rockwell posing with John Lane (Navajo) and his family, who were used as models for the final painting, on October 19, 1969 (National Archives Identifier 562813)

After Rockwell observed that there was no human element to the scene, Rusho mentioned that the Navajo reservation encompassed the area around the dam. Rockwell was intrigued and asked if they could meet a family. Blindly driving out of Page, Rusho stopped at the first hogan, a traditional Navajo house, that he found. He approached the door and John Lane answered. Rusho initially stated that he had an artist in the car looking for a family to model, and Lane, feigning ignorance of English, demurred. Rusho found himself apologizing and in leaving stated it was Norman Rockwell in the car. Lane perked up, repeated the name, and told Rusho they’d be right out. With his wife and child, they posed for several photographs, which Molly Rockwell again took, and then made plans to meet up at Lane’s stable a mile away for more pictures of the family with a horse and their dog. The photographs in hand, the party left, but not before Rockwell inconspicuously handed Lane several dollars in thanks.

Heading to a pier on Lake Powell, the party boarded the Steel King, a 26-foot cabin boat owned by the BOR, and along with several other folks departed for a Lake Powell camping trip. The weather was overcast, with slight occasional rain, but the Rockwells gushed about the scenery. After four hours they moored and made the one-mile trek to the Rainbow Bridge National Monument.

Norman and Molly Rockwell signing the register at Rainbow Bridge National Monument, on October 20, 1969. (National Archives Identifier 562813)
At Rusho’s request, and with someone procuring a piece of pink paper, Rockwell did a quick sketch of Rainbow Bridge. Rockwell signed it “Rockwell Kent” and gave it to Rusho; later that night DeWitt demanded it, saying it was government property. (National Archives Identifier 562813)
A slide of the Rainbow Bridge sketch from a 1978 BOR art inventory. (National Archives Identifier 1744840)

That night the group camped on the shore of the lake with Larry Sanderson, a BOR construction staffer who was the boat captain, also doing double duty as cook. The group returned to port the next day and after their farewells, the Rockwells returned east. In thanks for the trip, Rusho was sent a signed print of “Winter in Stockdale” a few weeks later and in early 1970 the finished Glen Canyon Dam painting arrived at the BOR. Since then the painting has been displayed primarily at the Glen Canyon Dam visitors center while also periodically being put on tour by the BOR, and most recently, loaned to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Conservation and appraisal records for Rockwell’s Glen Canyon Dam painting, 1989. (National Archives Identifier 1744840)

2 thoughts on “Norman Rockwell and his Dam Painting

  1. It stirs memories of having met Norman Rockwell when I was 9 and posed for the Golden Rule picture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *