Portraits and more
George Palmer’s seventy years of art
George Palmer in his studio
Palmer photo by Frani Evedon; artwork photos by Len Kagelmacher
George Palmer: His Many Faces is on view July 15 through August 26 at the Kenan Center, 433 Locust Street, Lockport. Call 433-2617 or visit kenancenter.org for more information.
In 1956, After seven years in New York City as a freelance illustrator for advertising agencies and studios, painter George Palmer realized he just might be able to make a living in his home town, so he came back to Buffalo with his wife and newborn (the first of five children). It was a huge risk. “No one knew me as an artist in Buffalo,” he recalls. “I showed in every exhibit that would have me.”
Seventy-two years later, seventy of Palmers works are featured in George Palmer: His Many Faces, opening at the Kenan Art Gallery July 15. The works are being selected from Palmer’s Kenmore studio/home, which explodes with paintings, drawings, illustrations, trays of pastels and charcoal, and easels awaiting students.
As Buffalo’s preeminent portrait painter, Palmer‘s work hangs in boardrooms, family rooms, and college libraries. He is the official portrait painter for Shea’s Performing Arts Center. At age ninety-three, Palmer continues to work in oils and pastels, still takes commissions for portraits, and creates landscapes and abstracts on canvas, board, and other surfaces. The Kenan show includes works from his illustration days in New York and renderings of his Navy shipmates, as well as his well-known portraits. Also included is his most recent work, landscapes rendered in broken strokes of pastels that simultaneously build up and deconstruct the scene, reminiscent of Cezanne, but without the cool objectivity. Some of the new works are completely non-objective but are reminiscent of incandescent deep-sea creatures.
At the age of twelve, during “art afternoon” at school, Palmer saw another student drawing landscapes with pastels. Intrigued, he, too, started drawing, thus beginning his informal training. He knew he wanted to study art, but, in deference to his parents, he started at Canisius College in a different field. His college days were cut short in 1943 when he was drafted into the Navy Medical Corps. His ship, the APA-45 USS Henrico, was an attack transport, housing thirty small boats with 1200 troops. Its destination was Normandy, and Palmer was there for D-Day. The USS Henrico completed its mission, sailed to the coast of southern France where the Navy engaged the enemy, then sailed through the Panama Canal toward Okinawa. The ship was hit by a Kamikaze plane, killing forty-nine officers and men, including the captain. But, between his duties as a medic, Palmer continued to produce art, making pastel portraits of his shipmates on desk blotters. “The blotters had a unique and interesting textural quality,” Palmer says. Encouraged by the positive reactions to his work, his desire to study art was reinforced.
Palmer began his formal art education at the Albright School in 1946, immediately after he was discharged. He also frequented the now defunct Art Institute of Buffalo, where the atmosphere was casual, and the faculty included Charles E. Burchfield, Edwin Dickinson, David Foster Pratt, and Tony Sisti. In New York, Palmer studied at the Art Students League with renowned figure painter, Robert Brachman, where he refined his portrait skills.
Performer Series #37, Performer Series #24
In the late 1950s, Buffalo artists were hard pressed to find places to show their work. The Burchfield Penney did not yet exist, nor did Hallwalls or CEPA, and there was a dearth of galleries featuring local art, even though Allentown teemed with artists’ studios and bohemians. Addressing this need, in 1958, Palmer opened Palmer Gallery on Bryant Street, where emerging artists Walter Prochwnick, Robert Freeland, Joseph Piccillo, Don Haug, and Walter Garver had a place to show their work. Palmer Gallery existed until 1965.
Within a few years after his return to Buffalo, Palmer won show awards from the Buffalo Society of Artists (BSA) and the Fine Arts League Show. He was elected BSA president twice (1960 and 1972), a first for the organization. With the completion of his bachelor of fine arts degree at the University at Buffalo in 1969, Palmer was able to supplement his income from portrait commissions by teaching. At UB, he met artists like Seymour Drumlevitch, and a modernist sensibility found its way into Palmer’s work, freeing his portraits from what he then perceived as a “tightness,” loosening up his backgrounds and helping his portrait work to become more “creative and thoughtful.”
George Palmer’s commissioned portraits include late mayor Frank Sedita, George Arthur, Lucille Ball, Christine Baranski, and Grover Washington Jr. He has exhibited his work nationwide and has received a number of awards and recognitions. Palmer credits “daily exercise, good food, garlic, and martinis” for his good health and concludes, “I made my living in something I dearly loved. How many people can say that?”