Celebrating Gloria Stoll Karn, a pulp fiction artist who broke gender barriers

Gloria Stoll Karn nearly trashed her high school artwork back in the 1940s, figuring her art career was over before it even started. But thanks to a janitor with an artistic eye, she ended up smashing gender barriers instead.

The pioneering artist, who had a brief but productive stint as an illustrator of pulp crime and romance magazines of the era, is being celebrated with an exhibition of her works at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Stoll Karn , 94, plans to attend Saturday’s opening.

“I’m really excited about that,” she said in a telephone interview from her Pittsburgh home. “I think it will be a great adventure.”

This May 2008 photo made by her grandson Shawn Cregan and provided by the Norman Rockwell Museum shows artist Gloria Stoll Karn at her home in Pittsburgh.
(AP)

Starting as a teenager in 1942 until 1949, she did dozens of illustrations for magazines with names like “All-Story Love,” ‘‘Black Mask,” ‘‘Thrilling Love” and her favorite, “Rangeland Romances,” which usually sold for a dime or 15 cents.

Her romance illustrations feature strapping men and rosy-cheeked young women with ribbons in their hair gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes as they tenderly steal a peck on the lips. Because it was wartime, the men were often in military uniform.

She drew her inspiration from the pop culture of the day.

“I liked 1940s movies,” she said. “You know: Boy meets girl, boy loses, girl, boy gets girl back.”

Gloria Stoll studied in her native New York City at the prestigious High School of Music & Art, now the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

But after her father died, she got a job doing secretarial work at an insurance company to help her mother make ends meet. To get rid of some clutter, she took her entire portfolio from high school, including gouache, oil, and watercolor works, to her apartment building’s incinerator room and placed it on the floor to be destroyed.

The janitor saw it, thought it showed promise and took it to Rafael DeSoto, a pulp illustrator who lived in the same building.

This image provided by the Norman Rockwell Museum shows the watercolor on board painting “Army Soldier and Woman on Bicycle,” created in 1944 by Gloria Stoll Karn. Karn.
(AP)

“This artist said he thought I had talent and would like to meet me,” she said.

DeSoto introduced her to executives at Popular Publications, one of the day’s major publishers of pulp fiction. She didn’t exactly get a ringing endorsement from the publisher’s male art director.

“Well, we’ve had worse,” she remembers him saying.

But it was good enough. She started doing interior illustrations and eventually moved up to prestigious cover illustrations. She never met another woman artist during her time but was accepted by everyone she met in the business, despite her gender and tender age, she said.

“It was a very, very nice atmosphere there at Popular Publications,” she said. “It was friendly and comfortable, it wasn’t stilted, and it was easygoing. It was a nice experience for a young woman.”

The Norman Rockwell Museum , which regularly features temporary exhibitions of other illustrators’ work, was tipped off about Stoll Karn by one of her neighbors, said Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator.

Plunkett saw something remarkable when she checked out Stoll Karn’s work.

“There were certain conventions in pulp illustrations — they were steamy, risque and racy — and Gloria created women who fell into those conventions. But there was also a confidence about her characters that I appreciated,” Plunkett said. “There was something beneath the surface there. She did not create women who appeared unintelligent or victimized.”

Stoll Karn’s brief career ended when she married and moved to Pittsburgh, although she continued to create art.

In fact, she’s probably more proud of her later works, primarily portraits, even though the pulp work brought her more attention.

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