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Charmed Life

Art for Art's Sake

Alan Sloane

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 10/31/2001

Genius, it's been said, does what it must, talent what it can. By that standard, Art Palmer rates as some sort of genius: a self-taught painter, printer, sculptor, and (of necessity) inventor, a guy who doggedly clambers over technical obstacles in quest of his own flamboyant visions. His images run the gamut, from sleekly painted Afro-goddesses and hypernatural animal sculptures to frantic cartoons of anthropomorphic fish. If they ever put on a West Baltimore show at the American Visionary Art Museum, Palmer could submit work under five or six names and no one would get suspicious.

When the weather is decent, the 37-year-old artist plies his craft on the sidewalk in front of a shoe store at 225 W. Saratoga St. Chisels, mallets, preparatory sketches, and works in progress crowd his workbench. Today's project, a great blue heron, emerges from a hunk of wood composed of several thick planks, glued and clamped together. Palmer, hovering intently, uses a power drill fitted with a grinding tool to plow grooves between the wing feathers. The lumber is salvaged, and not just because Palmer can't afford the sort of solid blocks he might prefer--he's an instinctive recycler. To one side of the workbench stands an old wooden armchair, its entire surface chiseled with patterns and iconic images. His reference for the heron is a 1961 bird atlas he found at a used-book store.

Part of Palmer's genius is his knack for book-learning. Nine years ago, finding that his prints and paintings weren't connecting with the public, he decided to go 3-D, making furniture, sculpture, and other items of décor. He picked up some texts on woodcarving and simply taught himself how to do it. Another book taught him how to reproduce sculptures using rubber molds. Mere days after tackling the problem, he was casting statuettes from his carved originals: tree frogs, masklike heads, gleefully exaggerated rhinoceroses, a fragmentary portrait of Duke Ellington. The art, he says "was already in me. . . . You just gotta learn how to get it out of you."

Like a lot of visionary types, Palmer gives God much of the credit for his work. "It's a spiritual thing," he says. "I could be walking, and . . . ideas just come, bang, and I come in my warehouse, real quick, sketch it out, and later on, after a couple hours after I finish meditating on it, I'll go ahead and draft me a pattern and start cutting out the wood."

Another inspiration is his wife, Savie, a multitalented artist in her own right. Born in Trinidad, she paints scenes in a traditional Caribbean style, makes jewelry, hand-paints decorative wineglasses, and openly marvels at her husband. They met on Howard Street when, egged on by a buddy, he asked if he could draw her portrait. She's slim, dark-eyed, with finely carved features and a disarming smile. By sheer serendipity, she turned out to be Palmer's soul mate.

Together, the couple runs a Harborplace gift shop called Artistic Specialist--an ironic name considering the diversity of their work. Art's modified chairs and Savie's painted cabinets are popular items. More irony: Thanks to its Inner Harbor location, the shop has more customers from Washington and Columbia than from Baltimore. As a west-side native and resident, Palmer expresses some frustration with his lack of hometown recognition. "I think there's people here who will buy," he says, "It's just hard to get to 'em. They probably don't know I'm here."

Back on Saratoga Street, the Palmer warehouse/studio takes up the entire second floor of what used to be a small furniture factory. The place is a study in creative disorder. Toward the rear, a large, unfinished wooden dinosaur lurks in the shadows--Palmer's first foray into a current obsession, carving carousel animals. "I keep it 'round to look at and say, 'Wow, look how far I came.'" A child's hobbyhorse--one of many toys scattered around the workspace--serves as a rough model for a full-size steed covered with patterns and symbols borrowed from West African art.

For all the Africanisms in his work, Palmer seems equally comfortable raiding European sources to create original statements. On display in the studio--and unlikely to turn up at Harborplace--is a knockoff of Albrecht Dürer's great 1504 engraving of Adam and Eve, with unmistakable likenesses of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky replacing the heads of the First Parents. A red-white-and-blue serpent slithers between them, with stars in its oversized eyes. "That's Kenneth Starr," the artist explains.

Next on Palmer's do-it-yourself curriculum: learning robotics and special effects. He brandishes a book on the subject and rapidly explains how easy it would be to give a sculpture eyes that roll--using recycled parts, of course. He'd like to be in Hollywood, he says, "carving and designing things for the movies. . . . I'm ready now."

In the meantime, Palmer's excited about what's on the bench. "If it sells or not," he says of his work, "I'm still gonna do it. It isn't all about money. If you're an artist, you gotta do it anyway. . . . I could live with this stuff forever."

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