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Drawn by Faith

7/1/2015

Patrick Scalisi

Collage of Columbia cover images

Pictured is a sampling of Columbia covers from 1921 — the year the magazine began publishing — to 1991. During these seven decades, more than 70 different artists contributed cover art, creating an estimated 800 original compositions. From humorous and patriotic illustrations to depictions of faith and fraternalism to artwork celebrating historic moments of the 20th century, Columbia cover artists never failed to capture the imagination of readers.

Dan Paulos belongs to a unique fraternity of artists. Of those who provided artwork for Columbia magazine in the decades before color photography became the dominant visual medium for modern publications, he is one of only a few who are still living.

At the time, Paulos worked with paper cuts, sketching intricate designs on black and white paper that he later carved into silhouettes using delicate hand tools. His portrait of Christ in profile, crowned with thorns and carrying the cross, graced the cover of Columbia in March 1988.

“I had published a book with some of my silhouettes in it, and [the editors] contacted me,” recalled Paulos, 65, who today works primarily with stained glass.

Paulos is among the dozens of artists, illustrators and painters who provided artwork for Columbia between 1921 and the early 1990s. A new exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., titled The Art of Illustration: Columbia’s Cover Story, includes approximately 70 original works from the museum’s permanent collection. And though many of the artists have died in the past 20 years, they leave behind a legacy of artwork that forms the tapestry of Columbia’s visual history.

ILLUSTRATION’S GOLDEN ERA

When Columbia debuted in 1921, it was very much a magazine of its time. Featuring the same cover aesthetic and paper size as the Saturday Evening Post, the new Knights of Columbus magazine was designed to appeal to a wide family audience.

By the end of the decade, the magazine’s circulation had grown to more than 700,000, and it was among the top 10 largest general magazines in the United States. An array of freelance artists provided cover art and interior illustrations to complement the magazine’s content, which included articles on social issues, religion, history and the arts, as well as short fiction and advertisements.

In August 1929, Columbia switched to a four-color press that allowed for more vivid covers. In a memo to then-Supreme Advocate Luke E. Hart at the time, Columbia’s General Manager Matthew T. Birmingham wrote, “I think we are going to be all dressed up for the Summer, with our August cover.”

Regular Saturday Evening Post contributor J.F. Kernan (1878-1958) contributed the first four-color cover, which depicted a boy sneaking his clothes past a sleeping sheriff after bathing in an off-limits swimming hole. These colorful cover trends would continue for nearly six decades. During illustration’s golden era, Columbia contracted with artists from a variety of backgrounds. Some worked for design companies or in advertising; others made ends meet by drawing comics or paperback book covers; while still others worked with some of the most iconic institutions of the 20th century.

THE ARTISTS

Among the most prolific artists to work with Columbia was William Luberoff. Born in Philadelphia in 1910, Luberoff’s artistic output was legendary. He began selling freelance work to magazines in the 1930s, served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and resumed his artistic career after the war.

From the 1930s to the 1980s, Luberoff created more than 60 covers for Columbia, including images that commemorated some of the Order’s most important milestones, as well as several of the most notable events of the 20th century. For example, Luberoff was working at his easel for Columbia when the first U.S. astronaut orbited Earth, when the infamous Roe v. Wade decision was handed down, when John Paul II was elected pope, and when the Knights of Columbus celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Like Luberoff, Perry Barlow was another Columbia contributor who was no stranger to the magazine industry. Born in Texas in 1892, Barlow is best known for his work for The New Yorker magazine, for which he created 1,574 drawings and 135 covers. Barlow’s whimsical watercolors of everyday American life lent a streak of levity to Columbia from the mid-1960s until the artist’s death in 1978.

Other notable illustrators included Donald J. Winslow (1923-79), who studied for a time under Norman Rockwell and posed for several of Rockwell’s covers; Rudolph Zallinger (1919-95), who created the famed Age of Reptiles mural at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven; and John R. McDermott (1919-77), who worked for Walt Disney Studios, notably as an effects animator for the film Pinocchio.

AN ENDURING HERITAGE

As current Columbia editors can attest, copies of artwork featured on the cover are frequently in high demand — and not just because it is the first thing that readers see when the magazine arrives in their mailboxes. In a world oversaturated with high-resolution photography, and with artists working with Photoshop instead of with paint and brushes, artwork often resonates in a way that photos cannot.

“I think art, as opposed to photography, makes a better connection with people,” said Bill Colrus, 82, who provided interior art for Columbia from 1970 until 1984 and who illustrated the magazine’s June 1983 cover. “Photography is wonderful in its own right, but it’s all over the place.”

Now, thanks to the new exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum, readers can view some of the original Columbia cover art that has been all but forgotten. Of the more than 200 pieces in the museum’s permanent collection, 63 original cover images are on display, as well as a number of conceptual sketches and final printed covers. While most of the earliest paintings commissioned to appear on Columbia’s cover were returned to the artists or otherwise lost to history, many from the 1950s to the 1980s have been preserved by the museum and can now been seen on display.

Fittingly, the oldest work in the exhibit comes from Luberoff, who crafted the February 1939 cover in honor of Catholic Press Month. In the image, a knight representing Catholicism wields the sword of Truth to slay the twin serpents of Error and Ignorance. The newest piece in the exhibit is Paulos’ papercut of Christ, which commemorated the 1988 Lenten season.

Paulos still recalls receiving a number of letters from Columbia readers who admired his silhouettes.

“I am far from being perfect,” Paulos said. “But the artwork, I always felt, was inspired, was necessary.”

PATRICK SCALISI is the senior editor of Columbia.