When 6-year-old Ruby Bridges became, in 1960, the first African American student to set foot in all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, she was stepping into the unknown.
Six years later, Sacramento performance artist and musician Deborah Pittman stepped into a similar unknown. She did so as an African American teenager bused to a white high school in New York City.
After Bridges helped integrate Frantz Elementary, artist Norman Rockwell stepped into an unknown, too by painting controversial works such as "The Problem We All Live With." It depicts Bridges being escorted by federal marshals on her way to school with a racist slur defacing the wall behind her.
For Rockwell, the theme ran contrary to the feel-good Americana he painted for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post magazine.
The meaning of Rockwell's painting forms the crux of Pittman's multimedia performance "Big Dreams, Small Shoulders" at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. The world-premiere performance which mixes music with narration, singing, dance, and puppetry is part of the museum's Norman Rockwell exhibit "American Chronicles," which opens Saturday.
It's hard to imagine anyone more fitting than Pittman for the project. Pittman, 59, who is a year older than Bridges and on the music faculty at California State University, Sacramento, was approached by the Crocker two years ago about doing something for the Rockwell show. Pittman is in the midst of an artist-in-residency at the Crocker.
At first, she thought herself an odd choice for the project. Then she traveled to the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, Mass., to get a better sense of Rockwell, the man and painter.
There she was surprised to learn that the iconic painting "The Problem We All Live With" was Rockwell's. That painting has many meanings for Pittman some of them quite visceral.
"I was really struck by that image because, at the time, my mother was desperately trying to get me into a white school," Pittman said.
Unlike Bridges, who calmly accepted the directive to attend a white school, Pittman would have none of it.
She was living in the Marcy Houses projects in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y.. Her father was not excited about his daughter attending a white school.
"When it came time to go, I was absolutely panicked, and I would not," said Pittman. "So, I was amazed that this little girl was doing it, because I refused to do it."
Pittman's inclinations would become immaterial in 1966, when busing was instituted in the New York City school system. Pittman was ordered to attend a mostly white school in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn a 35-minute bus ride on a good day.
"It was not as frightening as I thought it would be, but it was still disconcerting because I'd been a really good student in my inner-city school, and my first semester at Sheepshead I almost failed everything.
"There was such a big education gap," she said.
It took at least one semester for Pittman's grades to normalize.
"It was a rude awakening," she said.
One of the paintings that deeply spoke to Pittman, and one she refers to in the Crocker show, is Rockwell's "New Kids on the Block," in which two African American children stand in front of their moving van which is being unloaded in what looks like a white suburban neighborhood while three white children stare curiously at them from a few feet away.
Pittman came close to experiencing the same thing.
"My mother was always wanting us to move out of the projects and we did look at properties from time to time, but we never did move out," Pittman said.
Her father, now 87, was never crazy about moving to the suburbs so much so that he still lives in the same apartment Pittman grew up in.
To flesh out Bridges' story in the show, Pittman will use a life-sized puppet of the 6-year-old Ruby to draw the audience in. She is tapping puppeteer Art Grueneberger to bring Ruby to life.
"The idea of using the Bridges puppet is to get the audience to fall in love with her," said Grueneberger. "I wanted her to have this real innocence, and wanted her to walk through the piece and carry that innocence."
So far, the project has proved eye-opening to Grueneberger, too.
"It's been an interesting education. All I ever knew about Rockwell before this project was the Saturday Evening Post work and his idealized Americana stuff," he said. "I was just fascinated by how he'd be really subtle with the political statements like the graffito on the wall in 'The Problem We All Live With,' with the smashed tomato. You have to really look for it to find it."
One thing that fascinates Pittman about this project is learning about how Rockwell and Bridges eventually came within each other's orbit, albeit indirectly.
Rockwell never met Bridges.
"He used a model," Pittman said. "Bridges was 18 before she realized that Rockwell had done this painting based on her experience."
"These people who never came together they had such a profound effect on each other even today.
To prove her point, Pittman likes to note that Bridges today is a member of the board of directors at the Rockwell Museum.
BIG DREAMS, SMALL SHOULDERS
Who: Deborah Pittman
When: 2 pm Dec. 28; 12 p.m. and 1 p.m., Jan. 8, 2013
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
Tickets: $8 (Dec. 28, $5)
Information: (916) 808-7000; www.crockerartmuseum.org