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Patrick Palmer, a brilliant misfit of Houston’s art scene creates cathartic and captivating visual narratives does. The huge, soul-searching heads and gazing eyes featured throughout his work will linger in your mind long after you’ve experienced them. Palmer also happens to be the Dean of the Glassell School of Art at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Here, we talk to Palmer about symbolism, his great influences and never having artist’s block.
Who is Patrick Palmer?
I am probably one of the most educated outsider artists in town. When you think of outsider art, you think of someone who’s been ignored, and I’m certainly not that. I’ve been in school since kindergarten, and yet my work is somewhat outsider. I don’t really fit in to the same category as any of the mainstream Houston artists. In essence, there’s this odd dichotomy of having a brilliant education and never fitting in with my art.
How would you describe your artwork to those who are experiencing it for first time?
I paint big heads, so I’m not interested in portraiture (a representation of a specific person). I think of my big heads as expressions, moods, and feelings, as opposed to a portrait of ‘Jane Doe.’
Did you always want to be an artist?
I always did. I’d be scared and have no clue what to do if I wasn’t an artist! My parents said that I could become a boy scout or take painting lessons. I chose painting. In high school, my art teacher observed that I was a misfit, so she made art into a shelter for me. It’s thanks to her attention that I got scholarships into art schools.
Who has been your greatest influence?
This is going to sound really corny but my biggest hero is Edgar Degas. He was a master drawer, genius painter, brilliant draftsman, amazing storyteller, and everything that I could ever strive for. I just love his pieces — they’re so deep.
You have been in Texas for quite some time now. Do you consider the Lone Star State home?
Growing up in very beautiful resort cities like Newport Beach and Santa Barbara led to me always joking and saying ‘life could be worse.’ I admit that when I first moved to Houston, I thought I’d moved to hell. Now, I feel like I should work for the Houston Chamber of Commerce! I’m totally in love with this place. The people here in Texas are always so nice, and I even like the weather. I still miss physical natural beauty though. I’m lonely for a vista or a mountain.
Is there a striking memory that has stayed with you throughout your career as an artist?
Probably one of the most significant moments in my life was when I received a letter saying that The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought one of my drawings. When I discovered that the gallery owner set a price for my drawing, I said ‘you set a price? Give it away!’ I remember being amazed that someone would want one of my drawings.
Describe your training.
I’m trained in a very odd way. My undergraduate is in etching, and my graduate is in lithography. A woman once said to me ‘you’re not a painter, you just draw with brushes.’ I think my history is so based in printmaking and drawing that I build a painting in steps. Just like a print, I construct it.
Talk about the symbolism in your work.
Although I use the head as my primary vehicle, the destination is often varied. Like a writer, I use a handful of symbols that I keep returning to. Most symbols are about the future, the temporary time which we are given, and how life can change in a blink. I have a few symbols that I use for those topics over and over like the bird, the crown, and the volcano.
Speaking of symbolism, eyes are featured throughout your work. Can you describe the intention (if any) behind the power of the gaze?
There’s the old saying that ‘the eyes are the gateway to the soul.’ I believe the eyes to be so revealing, especially since my story is about moods, feelings, and expressions. They say something. The way in which I finesse an eye can change the mood of a piece. It’s fascinating that a different expression is created even if the eye is one sixteenth out.
They say that drawing the human head is particularly difficult. Any tips?
I think it’s one of the hardest things to draw in the classroom. I use the analogy that all art is like music. Drawing the figure is like playing the piano — it’s an art that you have to practice. Drawing the head itself is like playing concert level piano. In other words, you’re going all in for the full concert.
What is the story behind your Spring 2016 paintings, My Ancestors?
There’s so much talk nowadays about immigration and who should stay here and who shouldn’t. I wanted to address the whole idea of ancestors and how society strives towards a respected heritage. One of my pieces is my car salesman ancestor. I want to remind people that we don’t all have blue blood running through our veins!
When you embark on a new piece, do you find yourself entering a specific frame of mind?
I base my themes on current events. Recently, one of my seasons focused on natural disasters and the fragility of our lives. An event like a hurricane or a tornado can impact a multitude of people in so many ways. I don’t go about knowing what my next season will entail. Speaking of which, I’ve no idea what my fall theme will be, but I do know something will happen!
Is there such a thing as bad art?
Oh yes! There is so much bad art. I use the analogy of a writer in my class. Joining words together doesn’t make someone a writer just like slapping paint everywhere doesn’t make someone an artist. You can spot a brilliant artist by the level of mastery. A brilliant artist is one who says something important.
Have you ever had artist’s block?
I never have! I’m an early riser, so I just wake up in the morning and I can’t wait to get to my studio. I’ve no idea what I’m going to do but I paint every day. I’m not saying everything that I do is good; I just love the creative process.
Can you tell me about your time teaching at The Glassell School of Art?
Every day I feel like I’m in the most exclusive, permanent graduate program in the world! The students are always so enthusiastic and have an abundance of ideas. It’s fun to watch the exploration and growth that happens in the classroom. Every moment is amazing to me. I love the educational process, especially when it involves talking to students about not having to fit in with mainstream art.
If you could teleport anywhere in the world at this current moment, where would you go and why?
There are so many places! I would teleport to a place in Tuscany called Poppi. I once saw a paining in a small museum there, and I want to see it again so badly. It is this beautiful portrait of a woman, which I can’t get out of my mind. I sometimes question whether I’m romanticizing it, but I would like to see it again.
If you were provided with a time capsule, what artist would you like to meet the most?
What’s your favorite color?
Symphony or ballet?
Ballet. It’s more visual.
Theater or film?
Film. I love that I can be on a train going across a Siberian snowfield or crossing the Amazon with a piano.
If I can just keep going with this crazy little life of mine. I love every day and I don’t want it to end.