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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."

But he hasn't lost his memory. And his art studio looks just like it did in the 1960s when he built it above his attached garage. Stepping inside is a bit like entering a time machine. Eighteen-year-old Grace Kelly is lying on a table, posing for Vebell in 1949, before Hollywood had discovered her. Abraham Lincoln is close by in color on canvas, signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Mickey Mantle is in a metal filing cabinet on 35-millimeter slides, playing with Roger Maris' kids on the steps of the Yankees dugout. JFK is propped against the wall in a pencil sketch. Hitler is behind him in a painting. The president is smiling; the Fuhrer is scowling.

These are just a handful of the thousands of people he's photographed, illustrated and painted over his career. Against the backdrop of their images stacked up in his studio, Vebell shared how he got started.

As a toddler growing up in the Depression, Vebell spent hours sprawled out on the living room floor of his family's Chicago apartment, copying cartoons from the Chicago Tribune. That's what he was doing one evening when he looked up at his parents and announced: "I'm going to be an artist!"

His father was reading the evening paper. His mother was sewing. They both glanced down at their 6-year-old son and smiled, as if to say: That's nice, son.

But young Ed was serious. He was a serious boy. His passion for art coincided with an insatiable appetite for reading. At age 8, he set a goal to read every book in his small local library.

He started in the children's section and worked his way up through the adult books. It took four years, but he read more than 1,000 books, including biographies, travel books, you name it.

At the same time, he was attending a private Catholic school, where the nuns spotted his artistic talent and began relying on him to draw biblical scenes on the blackboard.

It was the sort of thing that made him popular among the nuns, but easy prey for teen toughs in his neighborhood. One day a gang of eight jumped him outside the apartment building where he lived.

Ed was 14 and weighed just 100 pounds at the time. Up to that point, he occupied every moment outside of school reading and drawing. The beating inspired him to add a third extracurricular activity: weightlifting.

In one year, Ed gained 70 pounds. It was all muscle. He never got beaten up again. His newfound love for athleticism and fitness also prepared him for what was ahead — World War II.

After attending some of the most prestigious art schools in Chicago between the ages of 15 and 18, Vebell got drafted into the Army. At the time he was making $350 a week doing catalog illustrations for Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck. It was 1942 and Vebell got sent to Casablanca in North Africa.

His artistic skills saved him from combat. Stars & Stripes had just opened its office in Algiers and needed a staff artist. The word "artist" had been stamped on Vebell's draft papers. That and the fact that he had brought along his sketchbook loaded with incredible drawings led his commanding officer to give him the nod.

"I was offered the job that changed my life forever," Vebell said.

He was sent to the front lines with sketch pads and pencils to capture battle scenes all over Europe. In the process, he lived with the locals, drank with the locals, and learned to speak French, Italian, Russian and Arabic. He witnessed the execution of seven young French collaborators; looked on as American GIs and German soldiers traded cigarettes for chocolates; showed up in Berlin right after it fell; and went to Hitler's bunker, where he sketched two Russian soldiers washing their shirts in a small garden pool.

"The life I lived in Europe was so unique," he said.

His last assignment for Stars & Stripes was covering the Nuremberg war trials. His famous sketch of Field Marshall Goering on trial is now on display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Vebell returned to the States in 1947. That's when he perfected his method of using photography as the basis for his paintings. If he was painting a living person such as a famous athlete or Hollywood actress, he'd photograph them first. If painting a historical scene like Custer's Last Stand or the Battle of Concord Bridge, he'd hire models; outfit them in period costumes; photograph them in an authentic setting; and then use the photographs as the basis for a painting.

That's exactly the method he used when doing the New Testament paintings for the Mormon Pavilion. For the illustration titled "John at Patmos Prophesies of Things to Come," Vebell used his neighbor to pose as John. Props included a candlestick that came from Vebell's collection; scrolls that Vebell made by hand out of rolling pins; and an old card table that Vebell dressed up to look like an ancient wooden one.

After photographing his model recording scripture by candlelight, Vebell made a tiny pencil sketch that resulted in the large painting on display at the Mormon Pavilion at the World's Fair.

He followed that same format for all 18 paintings, which he completed in 18 days and earned $9,000. "That was good money in those days," he said. "And I worked fast."

When asked to reflect on his memories of that project, he answers quickly: "Very favorable," he said. "I would have liked to have done more for the Mormon church. But I was booked solid back then."

Jeff Benedict is the author of "POISONED: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."

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