Jeff Benedict: Artist recalls his work for Mormon Pavilion at 1964 World's Fair

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 28 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

On a cold, gray day in early 1962, 41-year-old artist Ed Vebell put down his paintbrush and stepped back from the easel in his seaside studio in Westport, Conn.

His half-finished illustration for the upcoming issue of Reader's Digest would have to wait. Vebell had been summoned to a meeting with two representatives from the LDS Church.

With the New York World's Fair due to open in 1964, the church was actively courting top artists to produce paintings, murals and sculptures for its Mormon Pavilion exhibit. Westport was the go-to place. Home to the Famous Artists School, the town attracted some of the best commercial artists in America. Vebell's friends — artists Harry Anderson and Alex Ross — lived nearby and were also being pursued to work on the Mormon Pavilion project.

Wearing blue jeans, a baseball cap and a sports jacket over a sweater, the athletically built Vebell went to the appointed meeting place: the corner of Old Post Road and Main Street in the center of town.

Waiting for his potential clients from Salt Lake City to arrive, Vebell couldn't help shaking his head and grinning. As the lead artist for Reader's Digest and a contract illustrator for Life, Time, Sports Illustrated and Random House, he'd been to many client meetings. But never on a street corner. And never with Mormons. He wasn't sure what to expect.

Suddenly he spotted two men approaching in dark overcoats and gray fedoras.

"They looked almost like clergy," Vebell recalled.

They introduced themselves that way, too, as elders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The one who did most of the talking referred to himself as Elder Evans. Vebell doesn't remember the other man's name.

After a brief discussion, they asked Vebell to produce paintings depicting New Testament scenes. They offered to pay him $500 per week. One of the men reached into his pocket, removed $500 in cash and handed it to Vebell as a retainer.

"He said, 'You don't have to work if you don't want to, but it would be nice if you'd do some work for us,'" Vebell recalled. "I had never been approached that way. It was a handshake deal on a street corner."

Records obtained from the Church History Department suggest that one of the individuals who met with Vebell that day was likely David W. Evans, the brother of apostle Richard L. Evans. The other was probably Richard Marshall.

At that time, David Evans was helping the church engage the services of top artists, photographers and writers to work on the World's Fair exhibit. "David Evans had an agency in Salt Lake City and Marshall worked for him," said church history specialist Grant Anderson.

Ed Vebell and his colleagues Harry Anderson and Alex Ross ended up producing much of the biblical art at the World's Fair Mormon Pavilion, including a 15-foot mural depicting early prophets of God; a 12-foot mural of Christ and the original Twelve Apostles; and a revolving display showing important events from the New Testament.

Vebell's illustrations were also featured in a special 32-page, full-color section of The Improvement Era in 1965. Anderson went on to paint many more pictures of Christ that remain prominent in church lesson manuals and meetinghouse libraries throughout the world today.

"That was a long time ago," Vebell said in an interview conducted at his home earlier this month. "I'm the only one alive in that group today."

Vebell is 90 now and still occupies the same home he did back in 1962. He relies on two canes to get around and he rarely paints anymore. He had to stop after the retina in his right eye was accidentally shattered during a routine cataract surgery in 2004.

"For an artist to lose his eyesight is pretty devastating," Vebell said. "Everything I look at is distorted and I have no depth perception. I regret the operation every day of my life."

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