Black art is big business, even as it sits at the fringes of a booming art industry. The mainstream art world is dominated by a more popular culture, which allows but a sliver of black talent to penetrate its space at a time. This unsurprising phenomena shadows some of the most incredible works produced in contemporary art, and the remarkable artists who create them. Respectively, Charly Palmer is one of them.
Palmer, an Atlanta artist, who was born in Lafayette, Alabama, and spent his formative years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As an adult, he relocated to Chicago to attend the American Academy of Art and School of the Art Institute. As a post-graduate, he became a graphic designer and illustrator, and ran a successful design studio with a Fortune 500 clientele. More recently, he taught design and illustration and painting at Spelman College.
Palmer centers much of his work on aspects of blackness: love, family, and history. It is not uncommon to see topical issues floating through his vibrant paintings. In 2016, Fisk University commissioned Charly Palmer, for its 150th Commemorative Poster. Currently, Palmer lives and works in Atlanta, and devotes his life to his creative goal, which is cementing himself as a fine artist of note.
Writer and creative Ida Harris caught up with Charly Palmer to discuss black art and it’s role in the art business:
IH: You are teacher, a painter, a muralist, designer, and illustrator. Why art?
CP: I don’t think I had any other choice. I believe this is what I was supposed to be doing. I’m fascinated and moved by history in particular; specifically African American history. Art was my way of expressing what I felt about the African American journey. With art, I am able to share my ideas and thoughts in color.
IH: Looking at art as an industry, there appears to be differences, as it relates to black art. What is black art? Is it merely art created by African American artists, or is it something else?
CP: Saying this may be controversial, but black art is the soul of folk—black folk. It is soulful art, for us and by us, when it is honest. I say honest because that’s important. You can look at an artist’s work and tell when it’s genuine and from a soulful place, opposed to black art produced solely to make a living. There is a keen difference in the two.
IH: Would you say the mainstream art industry understands black art in that way?
CP: I don’t think so, because for those who make it to the next level, it is all about pushing black art as commerce. The industry focuses on ways to brand it and monetize it. The soul is not necessarily considered and is often absent from the work. But, then there are artists like Kerry James Marshall, whose art I love, who always maintains that sense of soul and blackness at the core of his work.
IH: In 2017, where does black art stand, in terms of financial gains?
CP: Black art is starting to get the recognition it has deserved for many years. Kerry James Marshall’s last painting sold at just over a million, and Kehinde Wiley does well, and there are others. But, if you look at the ones who are hugely successful, those are also the ones endorsed by the popular culture.
IH: Is that to say that mainstream validates and justifies black art’s worth?
CP: Not at all. Art is always validated by the person who creates it—or, at least, it should be. A lot of artists don’t get that, so they are always looking for the dollars or the next best trend, and that’s not authentic. That speaks to the commercial aspects of art, and sometimes, that even creates more stardom than money. It’s important to trust what we’re doing as artists and to know that no one can imitate or validate what comes from the soul.
IH: Let’s discuss Charly Palmer and the art business. What does a normal workday look like for you?
CP: I do have a routine. I arrive at the studio, light a candle, and crank the heat, because I like it toasty in there. I set up the easel, [and] scan my wall of art to see what speaks to me. Then I get to work. One of the things I use, as far as technology, is to take a photograph of what I’m working on, the night before, and map where it is going. Doing this prepares me for the following day. Preparation is everything, but once I get started, I’m committed.
At times, I neglect eating, because the work is guiding me. It’s saying, “Right now,” and once I’m in it—I’m in it. And while there’s a routine in preparation, there isn’t one necessarily, for navigating the actual production of the work. That type of process leads to me, avoiding the “business” part, which is not a good thing as a professional. Tending to the business is as equally important as doing the work, but it takes a different hat, a different brain, a different heart.
IH: What does the business part entail?
CP: The business part entails building and maintaining relationships with clients. It is networking. It is knowing your mission and understanding your brand. It is keeping financial records, sending invoices, and marketing the work and events. It is juggling exhibitions and artist talks. The business is about staying in the loop and in the know. It’s about reading, researching, and increasing knowledge. It’s also about knowing what other artists are doing and not in a competitive way, but in an inspirational way. Being an artist is also a part of the business—it’s about staying current, authentic and expanding your brand.
IH: Why should collectors be interested in Black Art?
CP: It is an investment, but it’s much more than a financial one. It is a family and social investment as well. In the case of my work, it is a historical investment, because I paint the past. Collectors should always buy art they connect with, that they absolutely love, and not because everyone else is buying it. When buying, they should also understand there is a chance for financial growth if a new artist becomes great, because the work will only increase in value over time; especially if they buy early.
IH: What are African Americans collecting? What are the trends?
CP: I think people are returning to the areas I dwell as a painter, and that’s work that highlights stories of black love, family, triumphs, victories, and our struggles. Those are the stories I tell. More of us are seeing the importance and the beauty in our stories. There’s a sense of pride in knowing our stories and our past. I think people are getting back to that.
IH: What are you creating?
CP: That’s an interesting question, because the answer is broad. I make a living painting a variety of subject matter. I’m currently working on a project for the NFL, which I can’t give much detail on, but I’m really excited about it. I completed two children’s book which is a love of mine—they both celebrate blackness. I’m selling works from an ongoing series titled Blackness; it too, celebrates blackness. One in particular—Black Advertisement deals with our past as commodity, and the present as appropriated products. The other, Unapologetically Black, focuses on black icons who were boldly black.
IH: What can we expect from Charly Palmer in the future?
CP: People can expect a continuance of blackness. I’m going to continue to dig deeply to explore what it means to be black, and continue to create narratives so that we continue to have the conversation.