Article originally appeared in New Jersey Real-Time News, February 8, 2010
By Aliyah Shahid/For The Star-Ledger
Most people never meet their heroes. But South River resident Joseph Csatari not only met his idol, he worked side-by-side with him for nearly a decade. And when Norman Rockwell retired, Csatari took his job.
Rockwell, an American icon, created paintings and illustrations of idyllic small-town life that continue to be an emblem of mid-20th century middle-America. Csatari never imagined he would work with Rockwell. But he did for eight years, before taking over Rockwell’s position as the official artist of the Boy Scouts of America after Rockwell retired in 1976.
In commemoration of the Boy Scout’s 100th anniversary on Monday, Csatari and his son, Jeff, have compiled “Norman Rockwell’s Boy Scouts of America.” The book includes 50 of Rockwell’s oil paintings and 37 of Csatari’s illustrations. The text, written by Jeff Csatari, describes the historical context of each work.
Csatari, 80, works in a studio in his home — five blocks from where he grew up. Sunlight streams through skylights in the second-floor room. The studio’s walls are covered with photos of him and Rockwell. Several mugs on Csatari’s desk are packed tight with colored pencils. Globs of paint, some still fresh, lay on a rectangular pallet. Dozens of paintings lean against the walls all around the room.
Sitting in his studio, his voice passionate and just a little wistful, Csatari said he always wanted to be an artist. But his father, a coal miner, was skeptical — at least at first.
“He would say, ‘You want to make a living out of this?,’” Csatari recalled. “And I said, ‘Pop it’ll work out, don’t worry.’”
After graduating from South River High School, Csatari went to the Academy of Arts in Newark. In return for a scholarship, one of his duties was to clean the art galleries. One day, Csatari was examining a large Rockwell painting hanging there. He noticed a brush hair sticking out from a thick stroke of paint. He plucked the hair and kept it in his wallet until the day he met his idol.
Shortly after graduating, Csatari was offered a job in layout department at a popular women’s magazine. But he read in the paper that the Boy Scouts of America were moving their headquarters from New York to North Brunswick. Knowing that Rockwell was their painter, Csatari took a job in the Boy Scouts’ advertising department, hoping he would meet Rockwell.
Csatari shared his admiration for Rockwell with his colleagues. A sympathetic superior offered to make an introduction. Csatari was thrilled. He and Rockwell chatted briefly — perhaps for 15 minutes — about painting, but were interrupted by Rockwell’s driver, who said the artist had to go to another appointment. Rockwell called Csatari the next day to apologize and continue their discussion — the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Csatari eventually became art director for Boys’ Life, the Boy Scouts magazine, where he worked side-by-side with Rockwell.
Csatari would come up with potential themes for Rockwell’s pieces and make rough sketches. Once Rockwell decided on a theme, Csatari would find models who he’d bring to photo shoots at Rockwell’s Massachusetts studio. As Rockwell aged, Csatari would sometimes help him paint.
Like Rockwell, when Csatari paints, he selects a theme, finds local models, photographs them, sketches the photo and then paints the sketch.
One of the most important things Csatari said he learned from Rockwell was to make sure his models are at ease so their expressions are natural.
“He would make all sorts of faces, roll on the ground, and do anything to relieve tension,” Csatari said of Rockwell.
Csatari still paints every day. Most of his Boy Scout paintings hang in the National Scouting Museum in Irvington, Texas, alongside Rockwell’s 50 Scout paintings.
“Joe has taken the rich tradition started by Norman Rockwell and made it his own,” said Bob Mazzuca, chief executive of the Boy Scouts of America. “Rockwell’s illustrations gave you a snapshot in time — you wanted to be part of the images he created. Csatari’s work (also) makes you feel like you are part of the picture.”
In celebration of the 100th anniversary, one of Csatari’s paintings will be unveiled at a gala event at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., tomorrow. Csatari says he owes it all to Rockwell — who insisted that his protégé call him Norman.
“He was laid back and he was just a very kind and gentle person,” Csatari said. “You did not know you were with celebrity when you were with him.”