05/18/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
It's a room that would make the average grade-schooler squeal with delight. Thousands of plastic action figures crowd the walls, shoulder to shoulder, floor to ceiling. G.I. Joes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, E.T.s. Scores of Star Wars characters: Lukes, Leias, Ewoks. The Simpsons family. The Babar clan. Even Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. "We've got a little fallout here," says the toys' owner, rushing over to pick up a pile of toppled figures. When the weather changes, he explains, their joints loosen.
Welcome to the 19-year obsession of Jarvis Rockwell, the 66-year-old son of the late Saturday Evening Post illustrator Norman Rockwell. The younger Rockwell's collection of around 100,000 figures fills four rented rooms and two walk-in closets in an old brick building in Great Barrington, Mass., plus dozens of boxes in the basement of his nearby home. It all started in 1979, when the offbeat artist snapped up an endearing metal duck in a nearby toy store. "I've been buying them ever since," he says. "I'm fascinated."
Rockwell isn't merely a collector. He uses the figures to create surreal dioramas that have been exhibited at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City and at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stock-bridge, Mass. His trademark boxes contain figures—occasionally minus clothing or heads—posed in tongue-in-cheek tableaux such as mall scenes. "I can't really describe what I'm doing," Rockwell says modestly. "It's a social history, maybe."
Critics say that Rockwell's collection sums up today's society in the way his father's paintings summed up American life half a century ago. "Just the sheer volume assaults you with the idea of this disposable, ephemeral culture," says Laurie Norton Moffat, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, which has expressed interest (as has the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass.) in housing the collection. "It's an extraordinary document."
Jarvis's creativity began to blossom after his father died. With Norman Rockwell around, he says, "there wasn't much room to develop yourself. He was the main act." Jarvis is the oldest of Rockwell and his wife Mary's three sons: Tom, 65, oversees use of their father's name and images and has written children's books, including the preteen favorite How to Eat Fried Worms. Peter, 61, is an art historian and sculptor in Italy. Norman Rockwell himself was often distant, Jarvis recalls: "When someone is that talented, it's much easier for them to do what they're talented at than to be a parent."
A high school dropout, Jarvis briefly attended two art schools before joining the Air Force at age 19 and spending nearly three years in Korea. From 1955 to 1965, Rockwell lived the bohemian life in San Francisco, once exhibiting his colored-ink drawings at a gallery. He met his first wife, art student Susan Merrill, while touring Europe in 1966. They divorced in 1977; their daughter Daisy is 29 and working on a doctorate in South Asian studies at the University of Chicago.
Rockwell's toys even played matchmaker for his second marriage. When Nova Wyatt, a then-separated mother of two, moved into the house next door to his, Rockwell positioned a few figures in his window with their arms waving. Nova put some of her children's toys in hers. "They waved back, and that's how it all began," says Nova, 52, an art teacher. They married in 1985, agreeing that Rockwell wouldn't keep too many toys in their three-bedroom Great Barrington home.
Rockwell's enthusiasm for plastic appears to know no bounds: He is also hoarding thousands of plastic clips from bread and vegetable bags in the hope of creating a giant mural. But his passion remains the diminutive detritus of pop culture, from Day-Glo-coiffed Dennis Rodmans to Dukes of Hazzard characters. "This is an art effort for me," he says. "I wish my father could have seen it. He would have liked it."
Mark Dagostino in Great Barrington