(Not) Sheep Gallery shines a light on ‘The Problem We All Live With’

How the protests and police shootings of the last year brought new meaning to the title of a 1964 Norman Rockwell painting for gallery owner Caren Petersen

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
"America's Hero" by John Koldstitch

Caren Petersen, owner of (Not) Sheep Gallery, said it's likely she first encountered Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With” as a child. The now-iconic image depicts Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old African American girl, being escorted into the all-white William Frantz Elementary School at the height of the New Orleans school desegregation crisis.

“I think it’s one of those images everyone has had burned into their brains, not really thinking about the meaning of its title,” Petersen said recently by phone. “The impression of Norman Rockwell is that he’s this slice of American pie, and everything [he paints] is all good and innocent. And people forget that he chronicled some pretty important moments in history.”

As Petersen started to brainstorm ideas for a show centered on racism and the problems that go hand-in-hand with it, from police brutality to the frequency with which poor Black neighborhoods also exist as food deserts, the title of Rockwell’s painting started to take on a new sense of urgency. 

“I kept thinking, this is a problem we all live with. One more Black person shot. Another Black person sent to jail for something minor. And we seem to accept these things as day-to-day events,” said Petersen, who curated the multi-artist show “The Problem We All Live With,” which opens at (Not) Sheep in the Short North today (Thursday, May 6). “I think when the [Black lives matter] protests were happening last spring, it was a long time coming. … You know, we’re all aware, we’re all cognizant of what’s been happening in our country for a long time. But some people have dug in their heels and justified it for some reason, while others of us have pretended it won’t happen again, or it wasn’t as bad as it was, or that there was nothing we could really do.”

For Petersen, who has also owned and operated Muse Gallery since 1997, a turning point arrived with the election of president Donald Trump. Prior to Trump's rise, Petersen said she took most of her political stances internally, confronting the racism she witnessed within her family beginning from childhood growing up in Springfield, Ohio.

“My mother had a derogatory name for every racial group that exists,” she said. “I would argue with my mother about the Holocaust, or about the names she would call people, or whatever it was. And while I never really got through to my family, I carried within me this idea that there was something inherently wrong with our country.”

This boiled over with Trump’s election, a time that also coincided with Petersen having open-heart surgery to correct a birth defect that nearly killed her. “And so I had just gotten home from the hospital when Trump was elected, and to me it seemed like a backward shift in this country,” said Petersen, who emerged from the operation determined to take a bolder stance on social and political issues, founding (Not) Sheep in 2018 as a means of more directly engaging these larger conversations. “What it really came down to is that what I’m good at is art, and so I thought about it, and what I really wanted to do was let these artists speak. … I wanted to give them a platform to say these things, to put these things out there, and to work through a lot of these issues.”

In “The Problem We All Live With,” these issues include everything from racial discrimination to police violence, jarringly captured in “America’s Hero” by John Koldstitch, which depicts Superman as a cloaked, red-eyed menace brandishing a gun.

In a YouTube video discussing the work, Koldstitch recounts a time in childhood when he was strolling alongside his brother, “just catching the breeze,” when the pair’s walk was abruptly cut short by the police. “And then Superman pulls up and he lands at your feet, put his glock to your dome, demands your ID,” said Koldstitch, then 16 years old, who goes on to share that the police had confused his teenage self for a robbery suspect. “I haven’t really told too many people that story. I figured it’s about time I go ahead and let it out and not allow that experience to go in vain. We’ll see.”

Koldstitch is a more recent addition to the show, which has continued to evolve since Petersen first conceived of it more than a year ago, each shift meant to remain in conversation with the moment as best as possible.

“You can abstractly think that you want to present these issues, but as things happen, like the protests and the continuous shootings, you realize how important it really was,” Petersen said. “And I think that’s part of what I’ve been wanting to accomplish, and part of what life really should be, in that every event should shape and shift the way you think, and that you should learn from all of it. And I know that’s certainly been the case with me.”