Endorsed by the Ancestors: The Ascent of Charly Palmer
By Shantay Robinson
During a month’s stay in South Africa, Charly Palmer was encouraged by a friend to see a spiritual advisor. What he found changed his life. He was told his ancestors are a strong presence in his life and that he should build an altar to treat them with gifts. The advisor noted that nothing she was doing would impact his life, but that good things would come to him. Though his trip happened in February, before the pandemic, Palmer has since thrived in a big way given the rise in internet engagement during quarantine. While the first half of this year has been tough for most of us, Palmer has enjoyed great success in 2020. Along with designing a book cover, his artwork was featured on Selena Gomez’s Instagram feed and graced the covers of both Time Magazine and John Legend’s newly released album, Bigger Love.
Palmer initially attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then transferred to American Academy of Art. He started his career as a commercial artist, meeting the needs of clients, but longed to be an independent fine artist to tell his own stories. The first time Palmer stepped out on his own, he found the world was not ready for him, so he returned to commercial art. The next time he tried his hand at fine art, Just Lookin’ Gallery in Hagerstown, Maryland took interest in his work. Today, 23 years later, the celebrated fine artist remains a client of the gallery because they were the first to give him a shot.
As an independent artist, Palmer started creating art about the Civil Rights Movement, not as a niche, but based on his own interest. He wasn’t intentional about being a socio-political artist; the story found him. That story has to do with empowering Black people, especially Black youth. Palmer and his wife actively work with young people given their commitment to “Further us as a race and do everything we can to reach back and find young people we can inspire and encourage. We want to let them know there are so many amazing options out there and you are a great deal more brilliant, intelligent, creative than they will ever give you credit for.” Palmer acknowledges, “I love black people. I choose to put my energy into loving us.”
Palmer is inspired by Charles White’s focus on depicting Black people. But whereas White focused on personages of the unknown, Palmer made a conscious decision to focus on his heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, Muhmmad Ali, and John Lewis. At one point, though, he found he was preaching to the choir. The academics and scholars he engaged had read the books on these heroes and knew about issues like the New Jim Crow. So, Palmer questions, “We know these problems exist, what is the solution and what is it that we can do to make a difference?”
“So, I started thinking… what I need to do is put more energy into the solution and without a doubt one of the solutions is to love and embrace yourself. And secondly embrace the Black community and see how you can make a difference there.”
Palmer began creating images of Black people with flowers and textures symbolic of beauty, strength, and even death. The flowers started in response to the emotional trauma he suffered from the loss of his mother eleven years ago to cancer. His mother was his fiercest supporter. For almost a year, he couldn’t paint anything. Then, one day, he painted a piece called “Not Enough Flowers” of a boy with a huge bouquet of flowers. He looked at the painting when it was done and recognized himself in it. From there, he incorporated flowers into everything he did.
Given Palmer’s 23-year journey and consistent representations of social justice, he was well positioned when Time magazine was looking for artwork to complement the written portion of their “America Must Change” issue in June. The cover image is of a little girl because he wanted to tell the story of the children affected by the social injustice of today. A child of the 1960s, Palmer is aware of the impact of mass social disruption and change on the world of children. Though Palmer is not able to see his grandchildren as much as he would like because of the pandemic, he knows they are being affected by what’s going on. Ultimately, his little girl on the cover of Time begs the question, “Why are they still afraid and what can we do as adults to protect them? Or assure them that it’s going to be okay?”
Palmer’s work also fit the moment when Selena Gomez’s team wanted to introduce a conversation about Black Lives Matter to Gomez’s 182 million fans. “At the very beginning of the protest shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Selena’s manager reached out to me.” Palmer states, “He said I was surfing the internet and I saw this powerful image you created. We would like to post that as our first statement of Black Lives Matter, and she wants to make a statement and she wants imagery.” For two weeks, Gomez featured and advocated for the Black Lives Matter movement. Palmer’s piece, “Speak with Confidence,” depicting a young Black man’s face covered by the stars and stripes of the United States flag, intrigued Gomez as she and her followers kicked off discussions about social justice issues with Kimberle Crenshaw, Jelani Cobb, and Alicia Garza.
He designed the cover art for All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir by George M. Johnson published this year. He was intrigued after his publisher contacted him to see if he’d be interested in developing some ideas for Johnson’s book cover. “So, I started reading George M. Johnson. I’m like this young cat is brilliant. He’s pretty damn amazing. And I’m like, yeah, I can see right away what I could do. And I started asking questions that are part of the book cover and sending flowers to him. I said give me any information and then I created that piece. And then that book came out. And it’s pretty high on young adult bestselling books right now.” After the book’s release, actress Gabrielle Union optioned the rights of the memoir for a television development deal with Sony Television.
While Palmer’s work lends itself nicely to conversations of social justice and Black empowerment, there is no denying the beauty inherent in the images he creates, which is why John Legend enlisted him to design the cover art for his latest album. Palmer was inspired by Miles Davis’s beautifully painted album cover art for Bitches Brew. The cover art for Bigger Love is obviously a proud moment for Palmer where, again, he uses flowers to enshrine a portrait of John Legend. But the irony behind the collaboration brings us back to South Africa. The spiritual advisor Palmer met while there told him she wasn’t doing anything to control his fate, that his ancestors were working on his behalf. And like the advisor said, amazing things were coming to pass. “And when I mentioned that we just came back from South Africa, John said that South Africa is my second biggest market in the world. And I was like okay confirmation.”
To follow up his wonderful wins in 2020, Palmer and his partner plan to publish an anthology of art by notable artists along with writing to supplement them, aimed at empowering young people. If the first part of 2020 tells us anything about this talented artist, we can be sure there will be more to look for from Charly Palmer.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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