‘Breathtaker,’ The Rice Gallery Exhibit with Norman-Rockwell Museum: An Exclusive Interview with the Curator, Robert Lemieux

(Photo courtesy of Ben Sprague)

The Rice Gallery, known for its many exhibits such as the “Icon of American Animation” Exhibit and the Student/Staff Exhibits and more; recently started an Exhibit called “Breathtaker” in collaboration with the Norman-Rockwell Museum. In addition to being curated by Robert Lemieux.

Previous Exhibit Experience 

Robert Lemieux has completed four exhibits, five including the current “Breathtaker” exhibit. 

“This is the fifth exhibit. I’ve been fortunate to put together… All of the previous exhibits that I’ve been fortunate enough to put together have been museum quality.” Following this response, he briefly explained his previous experiences with creating gallery exhibits,” Lemieux said.

His first exhibit was the history of comic strips from the first half of the 20th century. 

Robert explains, “History of comic strips, the first half of the 20th century,  generated a considerable amount of interest and that was in 2000. It was the first one, in 2011, I want to say. It generated interest from folks in DC. You know the museum world in DC was very interesting. The National Gallery of Art came up to sort of look at the exhibit.”

His second exhibit was a collaboration with the Carle Museum. 

“We followed that up with an exhibit on Caldecott award-winning children’s books. If you’re familiar with the Caldecott award, it is the premier award for illustrated children’s books. And that was a beautiful, sweet, little exhibit because it brought in school kids,” Lemieux said. “The local school system was involved, the state library system was involved, they paid a visit to the gallery. And the people who we were borrowing art from for that place called the Carle Museum and a number of individual well-known children’s book artists.”

He shared that his third exhibit was focused on circuses. “We did the circus exhibit. Focusing on the history of the circus, the first half of the 20th century and we just kind of hit that right when the ring was saying, “we’re done doing circuses.”  And so everyone had this kind of nostalgic desire and our exhibit fulfilled that….. And we had a considerable amount of interest from the greater Baltimore area, somewhat from the DC area, and we borrowed art from the Ringling Museum, the Whitney in New York; some very high-end places.”

The “Icons of American Animation” was Lemieux’s fourth exhibit, featured earlier this year He briefly explained,  It was the largest show we’ve done. It was 150 pieces of art, which was way too much for the Rice art gallery. So we partnered with the Carroll Arts Council in downtown Westminster. They had about 60 percent of the art, we had about 40 percent  [that covered] a span of the 20th century. The original hand-drawn look of  that show generated a lot of interest. The Maryland State Art Council helped fund the exhibit. The Library of Congress was very interested in it, and The National Gallery of art was interested in it as well. That show was huge.”

His current exhibit, “Breathtaker,” is a collaboration with the Norman-Rockwell Museum. He shares that, “[The Norman-Rockwell Museum] is a nice place to collaborate with, especially with a small college such as ours. It was sort of different in the sense it was a graphic novel, a very influential graphic novel. And it’s different in the sense that we had to have a little tag that said that there was mature imagery here. It’s not uncommon for graphic novels to have violent content and sexual content. That was a little unique feature in terms of the maturity aspect of it. But I know that has generated interest. The Library of Congress was up here looking at that show.” In addition, he shared that earlier in the semester, he was able to present  the exhibit to  a visitor from Columbia University. 

At the end of his response about his experiences with gallery exhibits, he describes the possibilities that could have occurred with many of the exhibits, if not for Covid. In addition to how he feels about his exhibits. Lemieux states, “I would have never guessed that after the first one. Each one has something unique about it, in terms of how it’s grown. The Children’s book one that I mentioned, the Caldecott one, we had interest in that traveling. We actually packed that up and shipped it off to another exhibition place. If it wasn’t for covid, I’m certain that the animation exhibit would have traveled somewhere else. Just because of the quality of the art and the interest in it. So each of them has kind of grown and been unique in their own right. And everyone’s been pleased and that’s kind of what it’s all about. Having the viewing public satisfied with what they see, having the people that are funding you happy with what they see, having McDaniel College happy with what they see; It’s a good feeling.”

The Process of Creating the “Breathtaking” Exhibit

Lemieux wanted to share that his main inspiration for wanting to work with Mark Wheatly, whom he collaborated with in 2014 on a documentary short, and Marc Hempel’s artwork was due to the help that he previously received from Mark. He states, “when the Norman-Rockwell offered up this opportunity for us to the first stop, they’re hoping this is a traveling show, offering us the first stop knowing that Mark lives locally in Westminster. Marc Hempel lives in greater Baltimore. Both of them are widely respected and widely well known, and that they are very connected to the Comic-Con world. It’s kind of a no-brainer. I would be happy to do that…”

When creating the exhibit, he wanted to leave his own imprint while also taking into consideration the artist’s approach and ideas. As well as shares his curatorial perspective. He states, “Two things we did, essentially there are 4 books. A series of four books. Let’s just set the gallery up, so that you’re designating four locations for each of the four books. Like four pods if you will. Then let’s angle the walls that give each space its own separate look, distinct from the other pods…Then how do you bring the walls to life? Not that you have to but let’s see what we can do. I can became intrigued with the colors on the back of each book. If you flip over the back of each book, that’s where the color came from. You know there usually two to three colors on the back of each book and we just decided on “let’s go with that color.” And it’s kind of a roll with the dice. Those colors are pretty bright…We just painted a strip cause if you painted the whole wall, it would be overkill I think. But just enough to break up all that beige that’s there in the gallery. Then hang the art right on it, some of the text panels on it, and everyone’s commented, “hey, that’s a really nice look.” So that’s a good feeling. When that’s your imprint, and it’s simple. You know it’s not an elaborate design or anything. It’s simple, create three or four pods and let’s add some color. Simple, but very, very effective. That’s sort of the curatorial aspect, that the glass case.

He also gives insight into the interactive art piece. He states,” If you think about the interactive piece, where you can lift that piece of acetate to see the watercolor background and the acetate. I kind of learned some of those ideas from the experiences of the previous four exhibits.  There’s been color, there have been interactive prospects, and we’ve used that glass case on at least three of the previous exhibits. So the elements of the past kinda play into what we did for this. But in a simple kind of way.”

His explanation of the interactive artwork, how the gallery exhibit was organized, and the process of finding out what he should do to leave his own imprint gave a great curatorial perspective. 

A Curators Approach to Planning an Exhibit

Lemieux shares that the gallery was supposed to occur in 2020 and was in planning in 2019. But due to COVID-19, the gallery was delayed. It was again delayed in August of 2021. During the fall semester of 2021, the “Icons of American Animation” occurred, which was a larger show compared to the smaller exhibit currently going on. 

He states, “it kind of got pushed aside up until July of this year. Then we were like “Oh,” were a month away from opening. Then you’re in contact with Norman Rockwell, you’re in contact with the artists to try and figure out the gallery…how are we laying this out? So it kind of came together in a three-week span. And it’s just a matter of some of those previous experiences having an impact on your thinking about this show. How can we lay it out? How can we have an interactive piece? Can we use the glass case again? And how about some color here? All that you see in there came together in a three-week span. It wasn’t like we’ve been laboring over these months on end.”

The show overall took a three-week time span. This can be seen as an amazing and timely set-up for a gallery exhibit. Many shows can take years to plan depending on the artwork being chosen, the scale of the exhibit, the spaces needed to present the artwork, etc. 

A critical opponent to the art gallery was the amount of artwork and the selection process. He explains that “initially there was 90 pieces of art. They sent me a list that had 60-something pieces of art on it. It occurred to me when looking at the art list one day that it wasn’t an equivalent amount of art for the four books. It ranged from 10 pieces for book three to 22 pieces for book 4. One of them had 17 and one of them had 15.” This created a challenge, he explains, “we decided, alright to make this equivalent, let’s go with the lowest amount and will put 10 pieces and we’ll have to select 10 pieces from the other three books. Which creates a challenge because the one book that has 22 pieces of available art, you’re having to eliminate 12 pieces from the show.” The research was heavily involved as he had to chose the art that could portray the most important aspects of each graphic novel. 

As a curator, he shared, “I mean those pieces of art cover the entire story of that book. And you really wouldn’t know that, but the curator knows that. There is a reason the art is hanging there. It’s kind of a synopsis of the story for each book. There’s 10 pieces in book 1, tell the synopsis of book one visually. Book 2, those 10 pieces tell the story synopsis visually.”

He shared that he was also impacted by the cost of shipping for the artwork. For “Breathtaker,” he was shipped the artwork for $1400. He compared the amount of shipped artwork to the “Icons of American Animation” exhibit, “ the animation exhibit, that art… I mean it was 150 pieces versus the 40 for this show. All the animation art was shipped unframed. And it shipped from California opposed from this one (“Breathtaker artwork) shipping from Massachusetts. We had to frame all that art for the animation show. That’s 5000 dollars worth of frames for the animation show. When you’re done, you are required to ship art back the way you received it, so we had to take all of that out of the frames and ship all that animation art back to the lender unframed. 

In addition to the cost of shipping artwork, he explains that the left-over frames were around 150, “I donated some to the arts council downtown, and there’s a closet in the art studio that have so many frames…Students use them for their art projects. But they are beautiful, they are brand-new frames.” 

He used his extra resources with the art department and the Arts Council in downtown Westminster. 

The Process of Collecting Artwork

Collecting artwork can be time-consuming and can take an abundance of resources. Lemieux tells his experience with the Norman-Rockwell Museum, as well as tells his opinion on collecting difficult artwork and the process of transitioning into different exhibits. 

He describes his experience with the Norman-Rockman Museum as such, “I visited them last year, even though we had this ongoing conversation since 2019. I visited them last august, just for that face-to-face, and also they’re located in Western Massachusetts which is a great part of the world to be in in the summertime. So it was a great time to visit them. I also never been to the museum, so we got the opportunity to meet with them face to face. They were very interested in our Animation show. They were very interested in McDaniel being the first stop on the multi-stop tour of this. Just seeing the text panels that they shipped and how they created those panels. It was nice working with them. You can tell that they are a professional entity in the art world.”

The most difficult artwork to collect and/or persuaded to be included in the exhibit was “the mature ones,” Lemieux states. “There is one, in particular, that is female nudity. If you look at the cover of the book, they have strategically placed labels over female nude parts. While the piece of art doesn’t have those labels on it… The publishers strategically placed labels. So, we actually thought about replicating that, but then in a conversation with Steve Pearson, the director of the gallery, he said, “it’s art. We’ve had far more mature stuff than this in the gallery.” So we said “okay, let’s just go with it,” and put up a little sign out as you’re entering the gallery saying “this contains mature content.” So that one image of female nudity kind of created a conversation. We didn’t want any controversy rising in terms of people being upset by that presentation. There’s also a little violence in there, but for whatever reason, sexuality tends to create more controversy than violence does.”

His process of transitioning topics after each exhibit was explained extensively. He states, “The first exhibit, the comic strip show, was a collaboration with Cork and College Design, which is in DC. Their graduate program, an advanced exhibit design course; we partnered with them and they actually designed the show for us. They would hand me in teams, and I would go down like mid-semester, look at what they were working on, and chat. It was a great experience for them because it was a real-world project that they could put on, put in their portfolio. All the students were all adults in the advanced exhibit design graduate course and towards the end of the semester, they would blow me away with their design ideas. I would take that, I took all that and used it to create the comic strip show. Because they enjoyed that collaboration, they invited me back down the following year to give a presentation about what we had done. And after the presentation, they said, “okay Robert, what else are you interested in?” I made the mistake of saying, “You know, Children’s books are kind of interesting.” They’re like, “Great Idea! Let’s do that.”

Next thing you know, we are off and running with Children’s books. We collaborated on that. They did a great design, and then they invited me down after that and “What else are you thinking about?” (Roberts Response) “I don’t know, I’ve always been intrigued by the history of the circus. That would be fun to do.” (Graduate School Response) “Let’s do that!” So, it’s always been just something I’ve been interested in that has materialized into these shows, except for the current one “Breathtaker” with Norman-Rockwell.

So all the previous comic strips, children’s books, circus, and animation were all interests I had that I was fortunate that other people were able to see the viability of those interests being worthy of exhibits and entertaining an audience.”

Later he explains that this exhibit is his first time working with other artists and that he has faced some difficulty adjusting to the artist’s request previously. He states, “I’ve chatted with artists in the past before for previous exhibits, but they wanted to be more involved in how we put this together and I get it because it’s their art. But at the same time, you’re wanting your own imprint in terms of how we are laying it out, think about the pods we created and the color. It was managing those personalities, if you will, making them comfortable with the direction that we are going in. That had never been a part of any other previous exhibits.” His current experience working with artists has encouraged the idea to work with other artists in future collaborations. 

Lastly, he shares his favorite artwork within the gallery, other stories he wishes to portray about the “Breathtaker” exhibit, and the future exhibits he may curate.

He says “I like the cover of book 2, the skeleton. That’s all dark and black. It stands out from anything else there. Very dark, very Macabre. I really like that piece. I like the cover of book 4 as well. It has this big mouth that’s open and all these people, body parts in the mouth; the color of all that is pretty spectacular. I like those two covers a lot. Then there is a black and white image that I like. That’s book 2, that is a huge close-up of a face. Those three are probably my top 3.

Although the “Breathtaker” exhibit shares the story and process of the graphic novels, he wants to weave in “that Comic-Con, Baltimore Con, which is coming up. Just weave that in, just to give a sense of how…and we kind of know this intuitively, but just give a sense of how persuasive the comic book world is. To place this book within its cultural place. You know, within its historical place in the comic book timeline.”

He does not know the topic of the next exhibit. He explains that “Maybe this is it, this is the last one I do. I thought the first one was the last one I’d do. One and done. And here we are at number 5. So, I don’t know. I haven’t really stumbled across that thing yet, that I’d go, “that’s cool, that would make for a good exhibit.”

Overall, speaking with the curator has provided a new perspective to the reader and the gallery viewer. The “Breathtaker” exhibit with the Norman-Rockwell Museum and curated by Robert Lemieux, although small, can take your breath away.