Pops Peterson: The making of a protest artist

Maurice “Pops” Peterson at The Foundry in West Stockbridge.

A commemorative piece of protest art, featuring a number of women from the Berkshires, will be part of a month-long exhibit focusing on a local artist’s lifetime involvement in the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

It was 60 years ago, on Feb. 1, 1960, when four black men sat down at a Woolworth’s department store lunch counter and were refused service when they each ordered a cup of coffee.

Maurice “Pops” Peterson thanks his mother for keeping him out of school one day that year, instead bringing him to witness the non-violent civil rights protests in North Carolina that became known as the Greensboro sit-ins.

At 8 years old, Peterson recalls picketing outside the Woolworth five-and-dime variety store and getting his first taste of protesting. Five months later, the department store changed their policy that allowed for the lunch counter to be designated for “whites only.”

Now, following a career in journalism and web design, the Berkshire-based artist says he feels like he’s been “drafted” into a movement of protest art in his recent years of becoming an artist.

In his most recent exhibit and showcase at The Foundry in West Stockbridge, Peterson highlighted some of the activist artwork done by earlier artists, and what inspired them to create art devoted to making a political change.

“I am here to inspire people and to hopefully fight against racism and bigotry that’s coming back in such a terrifying way,” Peterson said. “I lived this story, I didn’t have to learn it. My family was all involved with going down to Washington, D.C. You had to do it, you felt like your life was at stake.”

One of Peterson’s most recent works titled, “I’m With Her”, featuring more than 40
models from Berkshire County.

One of Peterson’s most recent works of protest art, titled, “I’m With Her”, features more than 40 models — mostly women — from Berkshire County who symbolize the worldwide women-led protests, most notably the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Peterson called it the “ultimate testament to his craft” when dozens of local people responded to the online notice put out for volunteers to pose in his digital photos, later edited for a canvas.

Peterson’s artistic pursuits began at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and later by taking classes at the Pratt Institute. Peterson also earned a degree in English from Columbia University. But it wasn’t until later in his life, when Peterson turned 60, when it was suggested to him by his publishing agent to create a blog to help promote his writing. In need of illustrations for his blog, Peterson began drawing and designing images to visually aid his blog posts. From what started as a stick-figure drawings progressed into a commission-worthy undertakings for Peterson, he said.

In 2014, Peterson’s debut solo exhibition, “New Frontiers in Pop Art,” was presented at Lauren Clark Fine Art gallery in Great Barrington. His second solo exhibition, “Reinventing Rockwell,” took place at Sohn Fine Art in Lenox.

In Peterson’s recreations of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, he imagines how the portraits would be done if Rockwell were alive today. Peterson describes the following time as “an explosion” in his life when he was approached by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge and later by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).

Peterson was asked to be the MCAD’s first ever artist in residence, along with winning an award from the Northeast Regional Conference on Fair Housing and Civil Rights.

“I’m being endorsed by the State of Massachusetts, the same people who just honored Major General Arthur J. McNeil, one of the four men who started the sit-in protests in North Carolina,” said an impassioned Peterson in an interview with this newspaper, who began to get emotional.

The Norman Rockwell Museum has embraced Peterson’s work, holding a pair of standing-room only events in their main gallery for lecture events. In Peterson’s recreations of Rockwell pieces, he will attempt to find the original models that Rockwell used for the piece. In the next few months, Peterson says he has about a half-dozen original Rockwell models to seek out for potential pieces of art.

An example of one of Peterson’s Norman Rockwell recreations.

And Peterson’s connection to Rockwell doesn’t stop there.

Peterson owns Seven Salon Spa in Stockbridge with his husband Mark Johnson on the neighboring property of Rockwell’s former home on 8 South St. Peterson also mentioned that he was told on the day of Rockwell’s death, Rockwell was brought into the former Finnerty & Stevens Funeral Home building, which now houses Peterson’s salon.

Up next for Peterson will be a solo exhibition for the entire month of May at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, where he will highlight his early and recent artwork with an artist reception.

Peterson’s next art project will be called, “A child is born on skid row,” which will highlight the issue of homelessness in U.S.

“I look at the news and I saw these tent cities,” Peterson said. “This is something that was supposed to be happening in the 1930s. There are all these homeless people by the thousands. Then you give a trillion dollar tax break to fat cat’s … it’s outrageous.”

Peterson’s next appearance in the Berkshires will be on Sunday, Feb. 16, from 7 to 10 p.m., at the Egremont Barn, where Peterson will host a dance-and-sing benefit with the School House Band. The live music event will feature a karaoke contest and will raise money for the IS183 Art School of the Berkshires, located in Stockbridge.

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