Tom Palmore, the Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin
MK: You’ve said that you showed your artistic talent when you were young—how did you get interested in making art, and how did your talent show itself?
TP: When I was a young boy, I had the ability to draw better than the other children, and it was apparent from the first grade. I was rendering horses, not drawing stick figures with guns. When I was in grade school I was encouraged by teachers and very much by my family.
I grew up with my Grandparents, my sister, and my mother; we all lived together, and we all got along. My grandfather was my father figure and a good friend. My grandfather could draw, and sometimes in the evening we would draw together. He taught me observation.
My earliest memories are standing, fishing, by a riverbank or lake shore. We went fishing almost every weekend: that was our passion, and we both loved nature. We’d also go camping, and my grandfather was a keen observer of nature.
We raised fancy pigeons, and chickens. As a youngster I had many pets—cats, dogs, a squirrel and a horse.
I had an older sister who liked to draw and paint, and I was influenced by her. There was a brief period of time when I went with her to painting classes after school. The classes were taught by Mrs. MacRenolds; she was an eccentric and kind person. She was very encouraging, and she made painting a lot of fun. She was liberating. She said, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” and “Use a lot of color.”
I also did drawings at home and would take them to school, which brought me attention from the teacher and the other students. It was a form of showing off, which was something I liked to do.
MK: What were some of the influences on your work? At the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, with whom did you study and how did they influence you?
TP: It’s a big jump from grade school to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and a lot happened in between. First of all, the way that I got to the Academy was interesting, because I was going to school at North Texas University in Denton, and I couldn’t seem to find The Art World. I knew it was out there somewhere, but I wasn’t sure where.
Anyway, I started asking around to see if I could find the best artist in the area. I kept hearing about a man named Chapman Kelley, so I made arrangements to meet him. It turns out that he had gone to school at the Academy, and he told me if I was serious about becoming an artist that I should go there too. It was the best thing that could have happened to me at that time.
The level of instruction at the Academy was by far the best that I had ever had, and the talent of the students was very impressive. I was a little intimidated when I first arrived.
The instructor that had the most influence on me was Hobson Pittman: he was truly a gifted teacher. He had his favorites, and it seemed very important to me to become one. He, in no way, was jealous or competitive with his students, and he was very helpful in starting their careers. When I was still a student, he got me into two national drawing shows—at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Corcoran.
He would tell stories, fables and stuff, which were great. Each week he’d do an open crit in the auditorium, which a lot of students would attend. You’d bring three paintings and take them up to the front. I’d take one up, set it down, and immediately see exactly what was wrong with it, but it was too late then! About my composition, he said, “Tom, my boy, next time I go to Florida, I’m going to have you pack my bags.” And I knew that my painting might be a little too neat.
One of the things he said was, “Exactness is not the truth.” Just because you can paint something, that doesn’t mean it means anything. You can be a realist, but it doesn’t mean the painting has any substance.
Sometimes when I’m working, I can still hear his voice, making a comment or two.
MK: What sort of work did you do while you were there?
TP: At the Academy, painting is form of communication: you paint about what you care about. It was apparent to me that my childhood influences were still with me. At the Academy I did paintings, at first mostly not of animals, but still based on nature.
I was working with large printed photographs. There was a quality about them so that you couldn’t tell what they were, photos or inks. Reading magazines, I would erase parts of people’s faces and redraw them. I made offset posters in a larger scale. I used organic forms, like a pebble or branch, and I incorporated objects into drawings.
In my studio I kept pet frogs in a kiddie swimming pool. I fed them mealy worms. I’d whistle and the frogs would come and jump onto rocks to get fed the worms. It would amaze people who’d come to the studio to see the frogs come to my whistle. I did drawings of my frogs. Slowly but surely I did more and more with the animals.
MK: What do you say to your students?
TP: I tell my students that you have to be personal, do paintings about something you really care about. Clouds, sky, faces... Ask, “What is that I want to write about, paint about, communicate about?” Put it all into your computer: don’t emulate Renoir, want to be yourself. So much of time, people think they’re making art, but they’re copying someone else. That’s one of worst things you can do.
A good teacher encourages students to find their own vision and paint like themselves.
Sometimes I ask why do I want to do this? It doesn’t have to be solving world hunger, monumental. It can be very, very simple and very personal.
I have an idea, and I want to see that. I make paintings of what I want to see.
MK: I understand that David Lynch and Jack Fisk were your contemporaries at the Academy. What did aesthetic you share with them in art?
TP: The talent level of the students was very high, and then, like now, it was possible to learn a great deal from fellow students. Some of the people who I went to school with were David Lynch, Jack Fisk, and Murray Dessner. I also was friends with James Havard; he had graduated, but he had a studio in the Peale House. I had met James while I was still in Texas, before I came to the Academy.
David Lynch was a good friend. He was a very talented painter before he became a well-known filmmaker. The first show that I had in Philadelphia was a two-man show with David Lynch. It was held at small gallery on Pine St., the name, I have long forgotten. I do recall there weren’t many sales, but at least it was a start.
Jack Fisk, was sculptor and could work in almost any media. He was very bright and very aware of what was happening in the contemporary Art world. He had gone to Cooper Union before the Academy. We went to New York many times to check out the galleries and socialize. He, like David, moved to California and got into the film business. Jack became an art director, and a really good one at that. His film credits are long and many.
Lynch and Fisk are both gifted. David always had a recognizable style. Jack was influenced by contemporary art world, everything from body casts on.
David Lynch and I both had interest in surrealism, macabre. Lynch was influenced by early Francis Bacon work, especially its sense of mystery. I remember one piece of sculpture he made by pouring polyester resin over a dead bird on a plate with a fork, and spray painting the whole thing silver. A Poe kind of concept. The funny thing was, it was a present to Buffy Havard( James Havard’s wife at the time) She was quite amused.
Jack, who was personable and outgoing, sold me his l949 Chevy coupe before he moved—a classic black. Afterwards, For at least two years after they left when I was living in Philadelphia, I felt I should have gone with them to California. David was at the American Film Institute; Jack was acting before he moved into art direction. They were a real magnet, inspirational.
But I told myself I should do the best I can do while I’m in Philly. James Havard and Murray Dessner were my mentors, both showing with Marion Locks.
What can you say about Murray Dessner? He is a very talented artist, and one of the nicest people on the planet. Now that I think about it, Murray was also out of school when I met him, and also had a studio in the Peale House, just like James Havard.
James introduced me to Marion Locks, who was kind of shy in those days. She lined up a show for me. She had a core group of artists she relied on, including John Formicola and Noel Mahaffey (also from Texas).
Sea Otter with Ducks
Image Courtesy of Lew Allen Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM - www.lewallencontemporary.com
Lew Allen Contemporary will host a solo exhibition of Tom Palmore's work from August 1 - August 24, 2008
All Images © Tom Palmore and are used with permission.