By Dottie Indyke
Tom Palmorelikes to say that he went from being a bartender on Friday to an artist on Saturday. “It sounds funnier than hell, but that’s really how it happened,” he says.
In fact, Palmore likes to say a lot of things. As outrageous and sweetly eccentric as a feisty character in a western novel, he’s got a down-home way of telling tales. He’s also quick to turn his jokes on himself. You get the feeling that in the teasing department, not much would faze him. If, as he maintains, artists are only as good as their willingness to let their personalities show in their work, Palmore is the genuine article.
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He was born in Ada, OK, population 16,000 and home to the East Central University Tigers and the Arbuckle Mountain Bluegrass Festival. Raised by his mom and his grandparents, from the time he was very young his talent for drawing and painting was encouraged.
He does, however, remember a heart-to-heart talk in his grandfather’s woodshop when he was 11. His grandfather, a carpenter, advised him that his choice of a career should be something other than working with his hands. Recently remembering the advice from the man he revered, Palmore asked his 85-year-old mom, “Can you believe I turned out to be an artist?” “You use your hands,” she replied, with a wryness that seems to live in the family genes, “but occasionally you also use your head.”
Despite his grandfather’s counsel, he always knew he would be some kind of artist. In school he won contests and basked in the praise of his teachers. His best friend’s mom drew political cartoons and, to Palmore, it looked like the most fun thing in the world to do. Even his grandfather would sit and draw with him. “He was real good at drawing cows,” Palmore remembers, though it would be a while before the grandson would get around to making animals the centerpiece of his creations.
He was also an athlete, playing football and running track in high school and boxing while in college in Nevada. But art was always at the forefront of his imagination, and while a student at North Texas State University he searched for a role model. “I started to realize the shortcomings of the instructors I had and I asked around, in galleries and at school, who was the best artist in the area,” he says. “I knew there were better artists out there.”
The name that kept coming up was professional artist and gallery owner Chapman Kelly. Palmore made an appointment, loaded a dozen Texas landscape paintings into his car, and headed for Dallas. With several art prizes under his belt and the confidence of his 19 years, he lined up his work against the gallery walls and stood back, awaiting the accolades. Kelly, dressed in a tweed jacket and puffing on his pipe, strolled back and forth studying the work. “Well, I’ll tell you. You have a lot to learn,” he said. It took some doing for the aspiring artist to shelve his ego and agree to study with Kelly in a class of elite high school students.
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“Right off the bat, as soon as he opened his mouth, he was the best instructor I ever had,” Palmore remembers. “I was overwhelmed. Those kids were farther advanced than any I’d ever seen.” When five of the six decided to attend Kelly’s alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Palmore joined them. “Looking back, I can’t believe he put out that kind of effort for young people. More than anything, he taught me that it was possible to be an artist.”
At the academy, the oldest art school in America, Palmore got a well-rounded, traditional art education. With his friend, the filmmaker David Lynch, he railed against the strictures of the curriculum, but years later realized its enormous impact on his ability as a painter.
In art school, and in the years immediately following, he created elaborate and cryptic techniques of his own. Slowly, he began including realistic objects—televisions, flying lollipops, and eventually, animals. By his early 20s, he had been included in a group show at the prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. His days were spent working on his art and his evenings tending bar.
“In my studio I had a baby pool with frogs in it, and I started doing paintings of my frogs. I caught the frogs up in the Poconos in a beautiful mountain stream,” he says. “When I decided to let them go, it was in the Schuylkill River in downtown Philadelphia. I felt a little bad about that.”
At 25, he had his first solo show at Marion Lock Gallery in Philadelphia. He worked in a frenzy to get ready and was terrified that he would fail in the most public way. But on opening night, 16 of his paintings sold. His popularity has continued uninterrupted for more than 30 years.
That seminal show, entitled Midgets, Gorillas, and a Couple of Dogs, set the tone for his ensuing work, which is witty and meant to surprise with the juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory elements. In his paintings, monkeys perch on antique carousel horses and recline in topiary gardens. Penguins pose before Seurat seascapes and poodles in front of Monet water lilies.
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Palmore depicts every sort of creature, from parrots to bears to rams, in circumstances that are not impossible, perhaps, but certainly unlikely. He likes to think that if these animals could commission their own portraits, these would be their chosen settings.
“I care very much about the environment and about endangered species,” he says. “I feel an emotional connection to animals and I believe we have no more right to this planet than they do. Quite honestly, my attitude is you don’t have to make paintings of starving children to be serious. There are all kinds of ways to communicate. For me, one of the most effective ways is through a sense of humor.”
Palmore’s paintings are startling and funny, surreal but with a soft edge, and richly and realistically rendered. No doubt his viewers are attracted by their affection and imagination, though a deadpan Palmore claims his collectors buy his work “because it’s cheap.”
He has never catered to the market but rather follows his own offbeat intuitions, pulling images from his mind and putting them down with obsessive attention to detail. It’s his nature, he argues, and his gift as well as his curse, that he is driven to stand in front of his easel for days at a time, painting tiger hair. “One of my best critics around here is my FedEx guy,” he notes. “I’m serious. I live in a very rural situation and I show my work to different farmers, and what impresses them is the realistic quality. They say, ‘My God, you could touch that fur.’”
Clearly, he’s on to something. By being himself, Palmore has created work that attracts children and curators, non-art collectors and such prestigious venues as the Whitney Museum, the Venice Biennale, and the Smithsonian. These days Palmore leads a serious painter’s life, working six days a week in his studio in Wister, on the eastern border of Oklahoma. From his hilltop aerie he can see into Arkansas. Often he’ll go horseback riding in the nearby Wichita National Forest with his wife, Gina Peterson, a real estate broker who also raises and shows paint and quarter horses.
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But he’s not too serious. Recently he called his friend, photographer John Gurnsey, to get him a shot of a Rhode Island red chicken. “I wanted to do a picture of a chicken with a tornado behind it,” Palmore confesses. “It’s called Run Mama Red. I thought the red chicken would look real good with the grays of the tornado.”
Palmore is represented by J. Cacciola Gallery, New York, NY; Newman & Saunders Gallery, Wayne, PA; and Sorrell Sky Gallery, Durango, CO.
Featured in June 2003