Charly Palmer retrospective on view at Hammonds House Museum

July 2, 2021 Atlanta - Charly Palmer works on a painting ait at his studio on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
July 2, 2021 Atlanta - Charly Palmer works on a painting ait at his studio on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Painter’s 30-year retrospective includes his iconic Time magazine cover.

One year ago, on July 6, 2020, as the nation reeled from video of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests that roiled cities around the world, Time magazine ran a searing cover image capturing the moment.

A painting of a young black girl in silhouette led the double issue, titled “America Must Change.” Embedded in her upswept braids was an image of a night sky, glowing orange and yellow from flames of protest and rage. Red and pink roses enveloped the child’s shoulders like a mother’s hug. A tear pooled in the girl’s right eye, as though she was at once afraid of the fury in the streets but also broken-hearted over yet another death of an unarmed Black person in police custody. By the look of her face, she was about the same age as one of the children who witnessed Floyd’s murder.

As the protests churned and slowly died down, Atlanta artist Charly Palmer was working on that portrait, “In Her Eyes,” in his West End studio. He’d been commissioned by Time’s artistic director to render an image that would capture the seminal episode in the nation’s history. The child was witnessing, “a moment in which Americans will see whether their country is able to live up to its promise,” Time’s artistic director, D.W. Pine, wrote.

Time magazine commissioned this painting by Charly Palmer in 2020 to illustrate racial justice protests happening that summer in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
Caption
Time magazine commissioned this painting by Charly Palmer in 2020 to illustrate racial justice protests happening that summer in the wake of George Floyd's murder.

Credit: Charly Palmer

Credit: Charly Palmer

Now, “In Her Eyes” is on view as part of “Departure,” a 30-year retrospective currently on view at Hammonds House Museum. The show runs through Aug. 1. Long before Pine posed it, on canvas Palmer raised the question about the nation’s promise as it relates to Black people. The 40 images in the show span the start of his Atlanta career, when he created one of the official posters for the 1996 Olympics, to the present moment of the COVID-19 pandemic. Palmer tells the tale of each era’s ups and downs through the myriad experiences of being Black in America.

“Once you, like, think about the trauma of being Black in America, that’s why you know America must change,” Palmer, 60, said. “Why in 2021, I’m still concerned about my grandchildren? I thought we were past that. I thought we could be past that. But we’re not. We’re still being treated a certain way … that’s why, let me focus my energy on just loving up on us.”

His studio walls are covered with expressions of that love. Over to the right, a portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress and first to run for the Democratic presidential nomination commands attention. She’s surrounded by a field of yellow, as bold as Chisholm was. Her signature eyeglasses are vaguely abstracted as though she’s seeing a future brighter and more equitable than, perhaps, she imagined.

Portraits of Fred Hampton, Stacey Abrams, Muhammad Ali and others are a testament to the varying ways Black people have wielded power. In some cases, Palmer painted Yoruba masks across half of each face, bluntly suggesting each person’s life’s work is tied to distant African origins. Lithe, Black bodies, rendered in shades of dark brown and ebony, bend and sway on canvases to the left of the room. Nearby is the portrait of singer John Legend that Palmer painted for Legend’s album, “Bigger Love.” And seemingly everywhere, are Palmer’s portraits of James Baldwin.

“I can’t get James Baldwin out of my system,” Palmer said. “He was not our Black spokesperson, but they gave him a platform and he could have used it to tap dance. James never tap danced. And I loved that about him.”

July 2, 2021 Atlanta - Charly Palmer works on a painting ait at his studio on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
July 2, 2021 Atlanta - Charly Palmer works on a painting ait at his studio on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Like Baldwin’s spirit, flowers are abundant. They spring from the heads of his subjects, adorn their clothing, drape like capes against their skin. The blossoms are an homage to his mother, the late Irma Walker, a woman who, barely out of her teens, moved with her husband from Alabama to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That’s where Palmer spent his early life with his five siblings. Irma Walker realized early on that Charly was the child with an insatiable need to create. He drew on the backs of books, notepads, anything he could get his hands on. She’d bring home typing paper from her job as a secretary at City Hall and Palmer filled each sheet with sketches, especially portraits of The Beatles.

“My mom was my cheerleader,” Palmer said. “She did what it would take for us to be happy.”

Charly Palmer's retrospective at Hammonds House Museum spans 30 years of his career.
Caption
Charly Palmer's retrospective at Hammonds House Museum spans 30 years of his career.

Credit: Charly Palmer

Credit: Charly Palmer

She didn’t balk when Palmer decided to pursue a career in art, first as a graphic designer after attending the American Academy of Art in Chicago. Eventually he went on to illustrate children’s books. About 25 years ago, his career as a fine artist began to gather steam as he established himself in Atlanta.

As an art student he painted “pretty landscapes” but the challenges of being Black in America soon leapt from his canvases. The “Eminent Domain” series in the Hammonds House show contains mini-memorials to Black neighborhoods across the country that were routinely bulldozed and leveled throughout the 1950s and 1960s to construct the interstate highway system. Whole communities were wiped out in city after city from coast to coast. Through Palmer’s eyes, we see the front porch that was perhaps the stage for neighborhood storytelling, or streets where Black children rode bicycles.

“Palmer captures our focus and forces us to consider our place, agency in the world and how we hold space for our own forward movement,” said Leatrice Ellzy Wright, former executive director of Hammonds House. “This work and the idea of ‘Departure’ should also speak to those of us who bear witness in this moment.”

July 2, 2021 Atlanta - Portrait of acclaimed artist Charly Palmer at his studio on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
July 2, 2021 Atlanta - Portrait of acclaimed artist Charly Palmer at his studio on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Ellzy Wright helped curate “Departure,” the first show mounted by the museum since it reopened last month after more than a year of being closed because of the pandemic.

“In Her Eyes,” is part of “The Silent Series: Divided States,” in the museum’s upper gallery. Stars and stripes of the U.S. flag are a recurring theme. The symbols overlay and obscure images of Black life and stereotypes about that life. Who gets to define who is an American, Palmer seems to ask. What does it mean to be treated and respected as an equal?

In lower galleries there is a meditation on the Middle Passage and the hundreds of thousands of African lives lost in 400 years of the slave trade. It is an origin story that echoes throughout the retrospective, a show meant to celebrate Blackness. But Palmer’s declaration and assertion of Blackness and pride is, in some ways, a reaction to a nation defined by whiteness.

This series of paintings by Atlanta artist Charly Palmer depicts the displacement of Black communities for the construction of Interstate highways in the 1950 and 1960s.
Caption
This series of paintings by Atlanta artist Charly Palmer depicts the displacement of Black communities for the construction of Interstate highways in the 1950 and 1960s.

Credit: Charly Palmer

Credit: Charly Palmer

Yet there is one moment in the show, so subtle it could be missed or even considered out of place. It’s a watercolor in tones of gray, inspired by a photograph Palmer found in a box of old sepia photos in a vintage shop. In Palmer’s painting, a Black man poses in front of a stone bench at the edge of a field. His hands are behind his back, right knee bent over the left. Two evergreens command the distance. It is as if his family took a break at a rest stop and the view was too lovely to pass up.

The man’s features are barely discernible, yet the composition resonates with a sense of peace, if not joy. He looks free of the world’s expectations and burdens. In this work, Palmer gets close to his ideal.

“I want to paint the way James Baldwin makes me feel: warm, loved and understood,” Palmer said.

EXHIBITION PREVIEW

Charly Palmer: “Departure”

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Through Aug. 1. $10; ages 62 and older $7; students, artists, poets and writers $5; ages 12 and younger free. Hammonds House Museum, 503 Peeples St. SW, Atlanta. hammondshouse.org.