STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — Gloria Stoll Karn’s career as a pulp-fiction illustrator began shortly after she tried to throw her entire portfolio of artwork into an incinerator.
Luckily, things went up from there. So much so that the nonagenarian’s work will be on exhibit in one of the most famous museums of illustration, the Norman Rockwell Museum, starting this weekend.
“It sounds crazy, but it’s kind of the story of my life,” Karn said.
“Gloria was a contemporary of Rockwell,” said Stephanie Plunkett, curator of the “Gloria Stoll Karn: Pulp Romance” exhibition at the NRM. Although Karn began working on her art at a young age, it took extraordinary circumstances to make it her career.
Shortly after Karn graduated from the High School of Music and Art in New York City in 1940, her family encouraged her to be sensible and take a steady job. She accepted a position at a large insurance firm in the city, filing forms and watching the minute hand on the company’s clock drag on. One evening, she looked down at her art portfolio, which had taken her four years to compile, and decided it was useless to keep it.
“I took it all to the incinerator,” Karn said, “But it wouldn’t fit.”
Instead, she left it strewn next to the incinerator, thinking it would just get thrown out with the rest of the garbage.
“The next morning, there was a knock on the door,” Karn said. A janitor saw the portfolio and, after leafing through it, took Karn’s work up to Rafael DeSoto, a rather famous pulp illustrator who lived in the same apartment building. He encouraged her to pursue a career in illustration.
DeSoto helped her navigate how to land a job and snag others.
She soon went from watching the clock at the insurance firm to racing against it.
“You weren’t supposed to leave the insurance building, but I snuck out,” Karn said. She brought her first assignment to Popular Publications, one of the largest publishers of pulp fiction, during her lunch hour. They accepted her work and she quit her job.
Karn spent the majority of the 1940s illustrating tons of detective stories, romance magazines and dime mysteries, mostly for Popular Publications.
“[She worked] in an industry where most female illustrators would be coerced into food packaging,” Plunkett said, “She was quite fearless in a way.”
Karn made her own way, churning out covers as well as inside illustrations for “Dime Mystery,” “Detective Tales,” “All Story Love,” Black Dime,” “Love Book,” “Love Short Stories” and others.
Plunket describes Karn’s work as “realistic but theatrical.”
“The covers had to be very dramatic. It’s a little bit like watching theater. ... It’s real life, but exaggerated,” Plunket said.
“Pulp Romance” includes 50 of Karn’s original works and a dozen books, which some people might remember from the newsstands of the 1940s. Scenes range from sweetly romantic (a man and woman kissing as the bread is burning in a toaster) to over-the-top dramatic (a woman in a catsuit looking at a looming eye with a skull coming out of it).
“They are these great little scenes that are meant to be tantalizing and a bit humorous,” Plunkett said.
After the 1940s, Karn moved away from New York City to start a family with her husband, Fred. Although she stopped illustrating pulp publications, she by no means stopped creating art.
“I got into doing abstract art, which I love,” Karn said.
Over the years, though, she’s found that people tend to come back to her pulp pieces.
“They had a popular appeal. People who lived through the 1940s [especially] love them,” Karn said.
She’s kept them in pristine condition and well cataloged, too, which helped the NRM in exhibiting the pieces.
“You really see what it meant to her,” Plunkett said.
Karn’s illustration work may have gone into different publications than Rockwell’s, but it has the same abundant sense of humor and vibrancy as that of the more famous artist. As a Golden Age illustrator, Karn’s work is more than deserving of a place in the NRM.
The artist will be at the museum Saturday for the exhibition’s opening from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
For information, visit nrm.org. The exhibition runs through June 10.