Of Many Things

My job at America is so enjoyable that sometimes I’m amazed that I get paid for it. Well, I don’t actually get paid for it, or rather, technically I do, though my salary is applied to the Jesuit community by virtue of my vow of poverty and, well...you know what I mean.

Anyway, it’s a great job. Chief among my pleasures is the responsibility for commissioning the art that appears in the magazine, as well as for scouting out new artists. And as eagle-eyed readers will have noticed, as part of our efforts to improve the magazine, we are including more full-color illustrations. This, in turn, has prompted a number of readers to ask questions about, as they say in the art world, the “provenance” of the work.

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How do you find the artists? As it turns out, most of them find us. Perhaps flying under the radar of many non-artists is a clever book called The Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market, which lists every U.S. magazine to which artists might conceivably submit their work. Since America is perched nearly at the top of the alphabetical list, we daily receive mini-résumés from artists around the country: small postcards with a sample illustration on one side and the artist’s address on the other. If we cotton to their style, we’ll contact them to ask if they would be willing to work for our (rather modest) pay scale. Incidentally, you might be surprised at the types of illustrations that appear on these postcards. You wouldn’t expect a canny artist to mail a Catholic magazine an illustration of two cows having sex, but, Gentle Reader, you would be wrong.

Do the artists read the articles before illustrating them? Yes, and quite carefully. As soon as an article is accepted, we send it to an illustrator. And since most of our artists are not Catholics (no mandatum here!), they are frequently presented with topics that are for them rather arcane. This prompts any number of phone calls from addled artists struggling to illustrate an essay on, say, Dominus Iesus. But, as I mentioned, all of the artists read the articles assiduously. One telephoned recently to ask alarmingly detailed questions about stem-cell research: What did the church think of a particular kind of stem-cell research? What was the status of the proposed bans on research in the state legislatures? Difficult questions, made all the more difficult by the fact that I hadn’t yet read the article.

Sometimes an artist’s talent and diligence can prove unintentionally hazardous. If an artist does an excellent job, for example, on a complicated essay on school vouchers, we will naturally think of him (or her) the next time we accept an article on education. This can make for some trying times in the art world. “Don’t you publish anything except articles on cloning?” one artist lamented.

Overall, however, it has proven helpful to find niches for the artists. Frederick H. Carlson, for example, paints superbly detailed portraits (lately of Simone Weil and Gerard Manley Hopkins, soon of Dorothy Day and Florence Nightingale), so we turn over to him any profiles of historical figures. And in a chance conversation, I discovered Michael Altman is rather active in his local church, so Mr. Altman has painted our Lenten covers for the last two years.

Are they originals? Believe it or not, each illustration is drawn specifically for the article it accompanies. (Notable exceptions include the Marian icons contributed by William Hart McNichols, S.J., and the photographs that we keep on file by Michael Flecky, S.J., and Brad Reynolds, S.J.) The artists work in a variety of media: oil, watercolor, pastel, colored pencil, pen and ink, collage, woodcut and, lately, with the computer.

Certainly the most enjoyable stage of the process is opening the oversized envelopes sent by the artists and pulling out a beautiful work of art. Sadly, however, the originals are in our care for only a short time and in a few weeks have to be returned to the artists. Ars may be longa, but the time we have to enjoy it is all too brevis.

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