The piece of art that most enthusiasts and casual art followers associate with artist Charly Palmer depicts a girl’s head sprouting from a bouquet of flowers, while in her head dance darker images involving police, protests and flames. Palmer’s painting, titled “In Her Eyes,” graced the cover of Time magazine in July 2020.
Music fans may be more familiar with a similar portrait Palmer painted of John Legend, which graced the cover of his album Bigger Love, released the previous month. In the portrait, Legend’s head is also rooted in a bouquet, while his head is made up of a more soothing galactic scene as compared to the turmoil depicted in “In Her Eyes.”
The Atlanta-based Palmer is known for his bold colors, layered shapes, and trademark floral designs, creating works that draw from his own experience as well as historical aspects of being black in America.
On Tuesday, May 18, Palmer is scheduled to join Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture curator Dexter Wimberly for a virtual edition of the museum’s Open Air event series, which focuses on contemporary African-American artists — their inspirations and perspectives — while giving a chance for fans and aspiring artists to get a glimpse beyond the artworks themselves at the people behind them.
Residue of history
As a designer, illustrator, and teacher, artist Charly Palmer has devoted his life to different creative pursuits, but has established himself as a notable painter in the visual arts sphere. His medium of choice, acrylic, allows for the electricity of his work to shine, but it also helps build the story behind each painting.
“There’s a certain part of my awareness when I’m creating, always still thinking about composition, design, balance, and color,” Palmer told Queen City Nerve over the phone from Atlanta. “But now it’s more of a narrative.”
The narrative that Palmer describes draws from his past. Born in 1960 in Fayette, Alabama, Palmer recalls visiting there even after his family relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1964.
“Going back to (visit) Alabama — and at the time, Jim Crow laws still existed, and so, a lot of that — to be confused by having my parents having these conversations trying to explain what Jim Crow was all about it was very confusing to me,” he said. “But it affected me for a long time afterwards … thinking about it, processing it, and trying to address it. Because the thing now in 2021, there’s still a residue of those types of experiences.”
That residue that Palmer explained has come through in his works, as he has painted countless portraits of the Black experience. Images of Civil Rights protests, slave auction flyers, and American symbols like the stars and stripes serve as the backgrounds of certain pieces, serving as the foundation for his narrative.
“I think that for me, our story of struggle, of courage, of strength and everything, will always kind of be important to me,” he said. “And what I think that the narrative does more than anything, it gives a different point of view, or sometimes an obvious point of view.”
An artist or activist?
Many have called Charly Palmer an activist artist, but he does not consider himself one, he said.
“I really resisted that label simply because I’m not active in doing things, anything other than producing this artwork,” he explained.
However, Palmer wants the viewer to come to their own conclusions.
“My role is to create, and then it’s the viewers, it is entirely up to them to form their own experiences or opinions or thoughts. How they choose to interpret [my work] could easily differ from me,” Palmer said.
His goal in creating is to show his own story, but the interpretation of its message is up to the viewer.
“I can’t be responsible for how someone reacts to something. I’m about telling the story from my eyes, and hopefully you get it from my eyes, but what I’m trying to say is, your story might be even more inspiring than I have thought.”
“I’m trying to maintain the truth. The truth being who I am,” he continued. “I’ve never tried to think too much about what someone else’s truth might be. I just want to focus on beautiful Black faces.”
A self-proclaimed lover of history, Palmer’s work reflects the struggle of being a Black person in America. Recently, however, he has begun documenting the world around him rather than continuing to reflect on the history of Blackness.
“We want to hope that you know, a year from now, we won’t be wearing a mask,” Palmer said. “But I’m starting to really seriously think about that, in my last series of works, that I should create works [about] this period that we’re going through right now. Because hopefully we can look back on this and remember. And this will take my work to a certain degree but a lot of work that I’ve done, I’ve attempted not to date it very much.”
Palmer’s desire to make his work timeless explains why he chooses not to directly depict one event in history in his paintings.
“I’m just wanting to tell the story of Blackness, and the experience as a whole of being Black,” he said.
A virtual trip to Charlotte
When asked what he wants to accomplish by speaking at Tuesday’s event, Palmer spoke of inspiration and questioning the world as we know it.
“I hope that, especially with young people, it arouses a lot of curiosity and I hope to get a ton of questions,” he said. “I hope those questions are things that I’ve never even thought about, but that they see something, they feel something that inspires them to look at things differently. I love when I’m in a situation where someone asked me a question that gives me cause to pause and think about it, because a lot of times it’s like they’re seeing something so brilliant, and I really appreciate that.”
Palmer’s works are currently on display at the ZuCot Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, though the Gantt Center hopes to center an upcoming exhibit around his art.
Onaje Henderson, a partner at Zucot, spoke to Queen City Nerve about the importance of appreciating Palmer’s work and other contemporary Black artists.
“Our goal in all of this is to continue to spread the message that ethnic artists have a voice that is often not seen or heard in public spaces or mainstream and [to make sure] that they are revered when they’re still here as well,” Henderson said. “We want to make sure that people like Charly receive their flowers, and we’ll continue to work our hardest to make sure that happens.”
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