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A newly married Pitt couple from small-town America scrimps to buy a single print created by a famous artist. That purchase begins a personal journey of art collecting that comes very close to home.

A Personal Collection


Cindy Gill and Bo Schwerin


 
  Jack and Martha Campbell
 

The hills of Bradford, Pa., are brushed with autumn hues. Along tree-lined Congress Street, grand old houses drowse in the late-day glow. The sounds of children at play rise from a grassy yard. Not far away, at the head of Main Street, a few people stroll past the gazebo in the town’s public square, much like the town commons of New England villages. Many of Bradford’s early settlers were, in fact, New Englanders.

Jack Campbell grew up in this small Pennsylvania town, where he played baseball in a ragged lot at the end of Clarence Street and fell asleep to the soft wail of train whistles in the distance. The moments of his ordinary days as a small-town boy in post-WWII America could easily have inspired a Norman Rockwell painting.

This fall—many decades later—Campbell (CAS ’71) and his wife, Martha, returned to their hometown and its Pitt campus for an exhibition of their collection of Rockwell’s art. The University of Pittsburgh at Bradford recently hosted Norman Rockwell: A Personal Collection, which displayed 11 of the artworks owned by the Campbells. “It is our hope that this Rockwell exhibition draws a lot of attention to the school,” says Jack Campbell. “It’s a beautiful campus.”

As a young man just out of the U.S. Marines, Campbell enrolled at Pitt-Bradford in 1967 on the GI Bill. The school was a mere four years old and very much a work in progress. At the time, it offered the first two years of education toward an undergraduate degree. There wasn’t a central campus; instead, classes were held all over town—including the old Emery hardware store, the National Guard armory, and even the local bowling alley. Three years later, Martha Mackowski Campbell, a Bradford native, also began taking courses at the campus, which was in the early phase of building new structures on 111 acres of donated land, most of which was once an airport.

Now in its 42nd year, Pitt-Bradford sits on a handsome 170-acre campus, with several classroom buildings, an active student center, an arts and communications complex, a library, residence halls, and plenty of outdoor space in the midst of the Allegheny mountains and national forest. The campus grants four-year degrees, offers more than 40 programs, and enrolls an average of 1,000 full-time students.

 
 
  Detail of Night Before Christmas, the earliest painting in the Campbell collection. Art courtesy of Jack and Martha Campbell; licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, Ill.
 

The Campbells bought their first Norman Rockwell print in 1975, a few years after they married. Some of Rockwell’s art was vastly undervalued then. They continued to collect his prints as they could, and later they began acquiring original oil paintings. Eventually they gathered a mix of Rockwell pieces that encompass the artist’s career.

For Jack Campbell, the appeal of Rockwell’s work is both universally American and rooted in Bradford and western Pennsylvania. “Rockwell for us was very commonplace,” he says. “His work was on the cover of many magazines while we were growing up. So we came to see a lot of Rockwell art, and it was such a wonderful depiction of our way of life. It wasn’t hard to have favorite pieces of Rockwell that you could relate to.”

Certainly, Campbell has a few favorites from the exhibition. After graduation, he went to work for Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel. “I was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio,” he says, “and when we’d go back to see our family in Bradford, we’d drive right through Sharon, Pennsylvania.”

 
The latest works in the collection, from the second half of the 1960s, are typical of the reportorial painting style Rockwell developed while documenting social issues for Look magazine. Tube Mill Operator was painted for the Sharon Steel Corporation in 1968. Rockwell spent hours at the plant observing steelmaking and then produced individual illustrations of each step of the process. Art courtesy of Jack and Martha Campbell; licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing, Niles, Ill.  
 

As it happens, Rockwell created a series of paintings about the steelmaking process for Sharon Steel Corporation, and the Campbells own two of these. “While [these paintings] are not my wife’s favorite pieces of Rockwell art, I imagine they might be mine,” he says.
Chances are that many Americans have a Rockwell favorite. For 60 years, the artist created paintings for everything from magazine covers to advertisements to illustrated books, including more than 300 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. His subjects, from the sleeping child in Night Before Christmas to the steel mill worker in Tube Mill Operator (both part of the exhibition), are indelibly American.

All the more reason the Campbells believe Pitt-Bradford was the right place to display their Rockwell collection. For them, the campus was and is a place of opportunity. “Pitt-Bradford gave us a chance we may never have received,” says Jack Campbell. “It gives a lot of people a chance to go to school, to succeed.” He credits the efforts of former Pitt-Bradford President Richard McDowell and current President Livingston Alexander with providing that chance.

McDowell and Alexander both know Jack and Martha Campbell as steadfast supporters of Pitt-Bradford. “They have a great love for their alma mater,” says Alexander, “which prompted them to lend us their treasured art collection. We are grateful to them for providing to the people of this region the rare opportunity to enjoy the timeless work of Norman Rockwell.”

The campus embraced the Campbell collection and created a series of events to celebrate the exhibit. Pitt faculty in history and art history presented lectures on Rockwell and his times. Soprano Nicole Cabell, the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2005 (the first American to win the competition in 20 years), gave a recital. One of Rockwell’s nephews, artist Richard Rockwell, visited campus to talk about his famous uncle, and Alec Chien, prize-winning pianist, closed the celebration with a performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

For now, the Campbells have returned to their home in Spring, Texas. But they’ll be back in Bradford soon enough, to visit family and keep up with the campus.

As Campbell talks about Pitt-Bradford today, it’s clear that he has assimilated a bit of Rockwell over the years. He mentions the many varieties of trees, how in the fall the leaves of hardwoods glow with colors that would challenge the most daring artist’s palette.

“In October,” he says, “it’s just out of a painting.”



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