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The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Chances are that your favorite artist’s favorite artist is Charly Palmer. Palmer, in and of himself, is a history of sorts. His career spans over 30 years and was born out of the curiosity of a 4-year-old who expressed himself through pencil and paper. Young Charly was both fascinated and obsessed with painting notable people who came to him through television. That artistic fever never waned. Instead, it only emboldened as he grew older and his subjects began to reflect the Black culture and people around him. Since then, Charly has committed himself to documenting the Black experience with brush strokes and acrylic paint on canvas, sculpture, murals and more. MADAMENOIRE sat with Charly Palmer to discuss his artistic inception, the art of Black History and community initiatives.
MADAMENOIRE: Charly, tell us. Where does your Black history begin?
Charly Palmer: It began when I was about four-years-old. It wasn’t an early day of painting. I really didn’t start painting until I was a teenager about 15 or 16-years-old. Prior to that, I was just constantly drawing, constantly using ballpoint pens or using number two pencils. I was never original and traditional art supplies were not available to me in the beginning. In the beginning there was a lot of drawing.
What was the impetus for you becoming an artist? What made you think—you know what, I’m an artist. I’m going to pursue this?
That’s one of the questions that turns on me because I have a younger brother who was better than me at everything, including drawing and painting. But I was passionate about it. Creating art was this thing I could lose time in and no one made me do it. My mother used to bring typing paper from work. She was a Secretary at City Hall and she would bring me stacks of paper. I would fly through them not even recognizing I was finding my voice. But then I was like this is how I speak.
This is something your mom obviously recognized when she started to bring you stacks of paper. How has she influenced your art?
I was fortunate to have the kind of a mother that was for whatever it’s going to take for you to be happy. And although there were five of us initially and then eventually six, with my little brother, she tried to do that for everybody. My mom was very much that cheerleader, encouraging, challenging and allowing us to explore different things—whether it was sports or music or anything. She saw very early that I could draw and let me have at it. She was very much just that support. She was often that inspiration for me.
You grew up in Milwaukee. What was Blackness in Milwaukee during your childhood?
Milwaukee was segregated. I grew up in an all-black neighborhood and never gave any thought to it. It was my life and I really greatly appreciated that. When I was about 13, my mother Irma had saved up enough money and was able to get a loan to move into a predominantly white neighborhood. I think that was the first time I truly understood that I was Black outside of my world. Of course, it is something that just was part of who I am, but it was marked because of the negative reaction I received around my Blackness. I became self-conscious and hyper-aware of that Blackness.
Has that consciousness or lack thereof—prior to moving into the neighborhood— impacted your art in any way?
Not at that time. I was drawing what everybody was drawing and when I was introduced to painting, I was painting still life and landscapes. Eventually, I learned the technical skills and developed to a point where I could tell the Black narrative. I noticed early works were about the struggle and about the historical aspect of blackness and the black journey, but as I got older those stories shifted.
I wanted to show and tell Black people, that we are beautiful. So, I moved away from painting famous faces and famous people and started looking for people who looked like my people, looked like the people I grew up with—my aunties and my uncles and people like that. I wanted to glorify them by doing nontraditional portraits and stories that center them. Cheers to the swift ability to do so and the belief it was necessary.
It sounds like what you’re saying or at least what I’m getting is that Black history isn’t just the celebration of historical people and events but also our even collective culture, the familiar moments and familiar folks. Is that correct?
It is familiar. It is very much this idea that Black history is not a month. It is an existence. It’s a reality. I came into the conscious awareness of it probably at 16. But prior to that, I was being black. Well… being told, my behavior, my actions, my feelings were black.
Historically, we have scores and scores of Black people who have been integral to making Blackness excellent. It’s dope that you can creatively render everyday folks and family as excellent by exalting their existence. All Black Lives Matter. As a people, we’ve come through Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Migration, Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Arts movements, redlining, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, police killing. How is your work aligned with some of these critical moments in Black history?
There’s a piece I created called “Unarmed.” Someone asked if represented George Floyd. The answer is no. I created this three years before George Floyd. I witnessed the beating of Rodney King. You can listen to Dick Gregory or hear the jokes of Richard Pryor about police violence. We’ve been going through this struggle with mistreatment the whole time we’ve been here. It’s a global issue.
In what ways are you pouring into and giving back to Blackness?
I was raised with an understanding to pass it forward if I’m being blessed with opportunities, exposure or even money. I am successful because of the ancestor’s struggles and the struggles and sacrifices of my mama. My wife, Dr. Karida Brown, and I decided to do what we call the year of giving. We reached out to Fisk University. We wanted to teach and engage Black students for a year. My wife is working with the John Lewis Center for Social Justice and I am working with creative students. Fisk University is not only an HBCU, but also historical for its protests and the systems that were developed to combat racism. Diane Nash played such a significant role.
The Irma foundation is in development. Irma foundation is an organization that will help fulfill the dreams of young people who want to pursue the arts.
With the work you’re doing in community, the work you’re doing in education, the art work you produce is all really loaded. Whether you are producing something that is expressing black excellence, you’re also digging into parts of Black identity. And that could be a heavy thing, right? Emotionally, you’re tapping into ideas about love. You tapping into ideas about self-reflection and self-value. How do you retreat from that? How do you unwind?
You know what? Sometimes you’re like you’re moving so quickly that you don’t think you need to reboot until you’re feeling totally mentally, emotionally exhausted. I find time to get away and simply be still. But that’s really new to me. That’s something I’ve only started doing in the last maybe two years of my life because I deal with attention deficit disorder and it’s my superpower. So, it’s really learning to be still. But a lot of times, it’s forcing myself to get to a place in the mountains or get somewhere where I can’t be interrupted.
I live for a Martell’s Old Fashioned. I like the sweet taste, but I want to taste the Martell—and I like the idea of someone else preparing it for me.
Who do find most inspirational?
James Baldwin on every level. He is someone I love. I love everything about this man and his Blackness and what he’s contributed to Blackness. If there were people I could spend time with, who are no longer here, Baldwin would be first. I hope he’d sit down with me and sip on Martell—hopefully it’s an old fashioned.
Try Charly’s go-to cocktail, the Martell Old Fashioned. Simply click here for the recipe.