STOCKBRIDGE — A new show at the Norman Rockwell Museum celebrates the pulp magazine work of Gloria Stoll Karn, but that show might not exist if it weren't for a kindly Brooklyn janitor with an eye for art and a connection that allowed him to do something about it.
As contemporary of Rockwell, Karn illustrated magazines as well, but for a completely different market than Rockwell. Karn, now in her 90s, worked from 1941 to 1949 as both an inside illustrator and cover artist for several magazines published by Popular Publications, one of the largest publishers of pulp magazines to exist. It was a male-dominated profession, but Karn was a prolific contributor to not only romance magazines aimed at women, but men-focused crime publications as well.
Her show at the Rockwell Museum, "Pulp Romance," which opens this weekend and runs through June 10, brings together over 50 of these works.
Karn had just graduated from the High School of Music and Art in New York City, but with no college plans had gone to work at the New York Life Insurance Company while she shared an apartment with her mother.
"I ended up filing cards there, which of course was very boring and not very lucrative," she said in a phone interview.
One night Karn put all her high school artwork in a pile and dumped it on top of the old newspapers in the building's incinerator room to be burned with the garbage. The next morning there was a knock on the door. It was the building's janitor.
"There was an artist on the sixth floor who was using the janitor as a model for these pulp covers that he was doing. The janitor contacted me and said that he had taken all my stuff out of the incinerator room and showed them to the artist and this artist thought I had talent and would like to meet me. I got up there so fast. I was very excited about meeting a real artist."
That artist was Rafael Desoto, legendary for his pulp magazine work. He introduced Karn to Popular Publications and arranged for her to illustrate a story. Excited, she quit her job at the insurance company.
"I waited to hear from them and nothing seemed to be happening. A few weeks went by and I thought, 'oh, boy, big mistake, I lost my job and here I am.'"
Other work did follow, though, and Karn found herself working on black-and-white illustrations for romance stories. At some point, she decided to do a color cover and bring it to the editor, who, after a brief consultation with the art director, hired Karn for that work as well.
Karn did the covers for magazines with titles like "Thrilling Love," "Romance Westerns" and "All-Story Love," but most of her cover work was for Rangeland Romances. Most of her covers featured couples, often with a cowboy theme, in love. But not always.
"Sometimes, it would be a single pretty girl. Always a pretty girl," she said.
She eventually decided she wanted to do work with completely different subject matter and found herself contributing much darker work to magazines like "Detective Tales," "Dime Mystery" and "Black Mask." Pretty girls appeared on these covers as well, but usually with someone macabre threatening them, like a snake or a ghost or skeletal hands.
"I began to realize that I had a shadow side, because it was the artist's responsibility to come up with all those ideas," she said. "I used to wonder how I would come up with some of those gruesome ideas."
Karn says that the movies were a big influence on her covers, for both the romance and the detective titles.
Karn started out working in Desoto's studio, but at some point set-up in her own space in Brooklyn Heights. It was a solitary profession, Karn says, but she had to physically lug her work on the subway to give it to the publisher, and there she might run into other artists like Clinton Spooner, also known for his romance work, and Ernest Chiriacka, later renowned for making the leap to fine art with his impressionist style renderings of the American landscape.
Karn's pulp career ended in 1949, but she didn't stop making art. She had married the previous year and moved to Pittsburgh with her husband. She attempted to continue to do work for the pulps, but shipping the art was troublesome.
During her professional time in New York, she had taken regular classes at the Art Students League, learning etching and lithography, which she has continued to pursue, along with oils and watercolors. Her early life as a commercial illustrator allowed her the freedom to prepare for her fine arts life later.
"I was freelancing, so my time was my own. I could work into the wee hours of the night if I wanted to. I didn't have to get up early. That was nice."