Magazine article The New Yorker

Model Student

Magazine article The New Yorker

Model Student

Article excerpt

In 1963, Lynda Gunn was asked by her grandfather, a private-school athletic director in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to model for a buddy of his who was a painter. Gunn, who was eight years old at the time, spent a few sessions wearing a fancy white dress and standing stock still in a walking position--her feet were balanced on wooden blocks to simulate the appearance of being in motion--being sketched and photographed by Norman Rockwell. Rockwell used her image in his celebrated work "The Problem We All Live With": the painting depicts Ruby Bridges, who in 1960 became the first African-American girl to enroll in an all-white Southern elementary school. In it, Gunn-as-Bridges approaches her first day of school flanked by federal marshals, the wall behind her defaced by a graffito slur. Last summer, President Obama requested that the painting, which is in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, be loaned to the White House, where it was displayed on a wall outside the Oval Office.

Gunn, a taciturn, thoughtful woman who works as a night auditor at the Super 8 Motel in Lee, Massachusetts, was invited to New York recently, to view a series of paintings by Philip Maysles, which are hanging on the wall of the Red Rooster, a restaurant in Harlem owned by Marcus Samuelsson. In one, Maysles--who is the son of Albert Maysles, the documentarian--has drawn "The Problem We All Live With" as it appeared while on exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, complete with a book for comments, in 2006. (A reproduction of the Houston comments book--"The more things change the more they stay the same"; "Security keeps following us"--is provided at the Red Rooster. Guests are invited to contribute their own comments, in a different color ink.) In another, he has drawn Gunn, schoolbooks in hand, being carefully positioned by her father, David Gunn, Jr., in Rockwell's book-lined studio. Another painting, a rendering of Rockwell's famous self-portrait in which Rockwell's face on the canvas has been replaced by Gunn's profile, is, Maysles said, his own oblique self-portrait. Over lunch with Gunn and Jane Allen Petrick, a writer who is working on a book about the real people of color whom Rockwell used as models, and who had initiated the encounter, Maysles explained, "A lot of my work is exploring white identity, and how whiteness is constructed in relation to images people have of black folk. …

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