For Tonawanda artist George Palmer, age is just a number
His portraits can be found all around Western New York and beyond — including displays at Shea's Performing Arts Center
When George Palmer was a boy living in Buffalo, he knew that he loved to draw. Upon graduating from Grover Cleveland High School in 1942, he informed his mother and father that he planned to attend art school. They were not thrilled.
“You’ll starve,” they told him.
Eager to please his parents, he attended Canisius College for a year, pursuing a traditional degree, until World War II interrupted that trajectory. Expecting that he would be drafted shortly, he joined the U.S. Navy, putting his creative ideas on hold.
Time and talent, however, have won out. Today, Palmer lives in Tonawanda, and has experienced a lifetime of success in painting. Still an active portrait artist, he has taught hundreds of students around Western New York and made a long-standing mark on the art community. These days, he works mainly from photos rather than face-to-face sittings, which was a method he used for years. Palmer is currently working on an oil painting of a mother and son, using two separate photos.
“I never used to tell my age, especially to my students,” he said. “Is my age relevant? I had to think about it because I lied so much. I thought they had a lot of nerve even asking.”
His home studio has served as a classroom for artists. Sitting in a beige armchair, Palmer looked out over round, wire glasses, recounting memories as if they lurked just beyond the far corner. Other than hearing aids, and a cane that is occasionally misplaced, no one would guess that Palmer is 98.
He taught for more than 60 years in studios and colleges around Buffalo, including D’Youville and Genesee Community College. Whenever he moved to a different location, his students moved right along with him.
On the brick walls of his home, a series of portraits are displayed, with parallel spotlights on the ceiling positioned to highlight the works. Most were created by Palmer, but there are a few by other artists, including his son, Mark. He is quick to explain each piece in detail: naming the artist, its reason for being displayed, and what media was used for its creation.
The most outstanding pieces are portraits of Palmer’s late wife, Gloria. Married in 1953, she passed away in 2003. Full-sized, the oil paintings encapsulate her beauty at different stages of life. To the casual viewer, it seems you can never tell what she was thinking. Gloria had full, blonde hair and light siren eyes.
The Palmers once shared this space with friends for parties. Years later, the room still holds life, with piles of supplies, papers and books stacked on every surface. This is Palmer’s subtle museum, a living exhibit to a life in the arts.
World War II
When Palmer joined the U.S. Navy, he was sent to Alaska to train on an amphibious ship. While the crew prepared and executed many invasions, including locations at Normandy and other points in Southern France, Palmer served as a pharmacist’s mate. His job was to aid wounded soldiers who were brought back to the ship.
“After the invasions in Europe, we went through the Panama Canal to the Pacific,” said Palmer. The crew was headed toward Okinawa. “While we were waiting for the invasion we were hit by a kamikaze. That was the first I heard of kamikaze.”
A Japanese plane struck the bridge of the ship, killing a significant number of the crew, including the captain.
“I was blessed to be spared because a lot of my crew died,” Palmer said, as his gaze fell back to a faraway time and place.
While overseas, Palmer continued to develop his passion for art. It seemed unlikely that a soldier might practice a peaceful hobby amidst the evils of war, but painting was a source of positivity for him and some of his crew. He carried a set of pastels and asked fellow shipmates to pose for portraits.
“I would ask certain friends and people I thought looked interesting,” he explained.
He gained a following through his portraits, which he found more interesting than landscapes.
“I always gravitated toward people,” he said. “Often, an artist’s life is one of aloneness. I needed the interaction with others.”
When Palmer was discharged from the service, he chose to attend art school. His parents, George and Margaret, had thought that plan would fade with time.
“They threw their hands up and said ‘Where did we go wrong?’” Palmer said.
He began studying at the Albright Art School in Buffalo, graduating in 1949. There, he learned a foundation in various media, such as oils and pastels, and further developed his drawing skills. Then it was on to the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan. The school allows opportunities to train under accomplished artists. As a student of this prestigious art institute, Palmer advanced quickly, focusing on portraits.
He studied under Robert Brackman, a well-known still-life artist who gained a measure of fame in 1938 for portraits of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Another of Brackman’s paintings was featured in the 1948 movie Portrait of Jennie.
Palmer studied under Brackman every weeknight for more than two years. Although the hours were long, it wasn’t work for Palmer, because he was doing what he loved.
He kept a busy schedule while living in New York. During this time, he fell in love with Gloria. He was in school for four years, and though he was creating, he waited to sell his work.
“I supported myself with different jobs and then went to school,” he recalled.
In addition to painting, Palmer loved music. He and his wife both enjoyed singing and acting. While he worked at painting, Gloria developed a passion for singing. She had tried out for many Broadway shows, and performed in a couple off-Broadway productions.
“She had a beautiful soprano voice,” explained Palmer. “But she became disillusioned with the scene and we came back to Buffalo.”
The young couple returned home in 1956 shortly after the birth of their first daughter, Lisa. It was one thing to hold a variety of small jobs in New York, but he needed a steady income to support his wife and daughter. So he took a risk and opened his first studio on Delaware Avenue, then dove into painting.
“It was tough going because no one knew me as an artist,” he said.
Palmer joined several local organizations, including the Buffalo Society of Artists, one of the oldest art societies in Western New York. Founded in 1891, their mission is to promote art awareness throughout the area. The mission has remained the same throughout the years, even as the community expanded. Later, Palmer served two terms as president of the group.
Such involvement allowed Palmer to build his name and make connections within the art community. It also allowed him to support his family. He and Gloria have five children: Lisa Haug, Maria Buscemi, Beth Palmer, and sons Mark and Eric.
Palmer’s reputation grew from his exhibitions. His work was first displayed in 1957 at the Allentown Art Show. He gained several commissions through this event, which helped put his growing family on firmer financial footing. It also brought him in contact with people who helped shape his career.
During his initial exhibit at Allentown, he met Peggy Nolan, who became his first student.
“I met a lady who was very aggressive, who wanted to study under me,” he said. “She was a good-looking blonde. It would have been hard to turn her down.”
With Nolan opening the door, other students came to Palmer. He welcomed eager artists to his first studio on Delaware Avenue and a gallery on Bryant Street.
In 1963, Palmer met Mary DeAngelis, then 16, at the Allentown Art Festival. Although she was only a teen, she was interested in art and impressed by Palmer’s work, so she requested a portrait.
“At that time I wasn’t charging a lot,” said Palmer, who undertook the job.
DeAngelis’s admiration for Palmer and his work extended into a lifetime of friendship. He became influential, painting several other family members. DeAngelis, now 75, has a daughter, Elena, and granddaughter, Marianna. Palmer has completed portraits of each of them. Working from photos and sittings, Palmer has painted four generations from the DeAngelis family
“He’s known my daughter since she was born,” DeAngelis said.
Elena admires Palmer, and remembers sitting for her first portrait decades ago. Just a girl, she entered his studio, which resembled a giant warehouse.
“While he was sketching, he’d look up at me with a Santa Claus smile,” she remembers fondly.
Elena always viewed him in a grandfatherly way. Throughout her life, Palmer has encouraged her to chase her dreams, particularly in the arts. When Elena began a singing career, she worked for a watercolor artist on the side.
“Art is art,” she said. Today, Elena works as a professional singer, and is grateful that Palmer has received recognition for his work. “We all love that the world at large gets to know him.”
Palmer’s portraits have been shipped all over the country. DeAngelis and Elena have seen his pieces in shops and galleries out-of-state, and have had friends inquire about his portraits. Thanks to Palmer’s distinctive style, an audience quickly recognizes his paintings.
“You know it’s a Palmer the minute you see it,” said Elena.
Elena is grateful that her family has been immortalized when Palmer puts oils onto canvas.
“It brought generations together,” she said. “It’s one way to capture people that were lost.”
Over the years, Palmer’s popularity increased. As class sizes went up, requests and commissions flowed. Businesses hired Palmer to create portraits of their employees. Judges hired him, and Palmer’s portraits hung in offices and courthouses, including Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo. Palmer even performed public demonstrations, sometimes painting randomly selected people from a crowd.
“I would choose someone from the audience and do a portrait for an hour and fifteen minutes,” he said. “People loved to see you working, and watch the portrait develop from charcoal to color.”
Palmer usually stayed busy, especially during the holidays.
“It was nothing for me to do twelve or thirteen portraits at Christmas,” he said.
Creating a portrait can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months, depending on the number of subjects. A single portrait could take anywhere from two to three sittings, or perhaps even four or five. Sometimes a painting “flows,” he said, and is completed faster. Several decades ago, Palmer worked on a life-sized portrait for a family of seven, which took him an entire summer to finish. The completed product was seven feet long.
“I had never done that many people before. They were a delight to work with,” he said. “I’ve always liked painting life-size because it’s more realistic.”
In 2018, a career retrospective exhibit was shown at the Kenan Center in Lockport, featuring more than 90 of Palmer’s paintings, spanning his six decades as an artist.
He is grateful to have struck a balance between teaching and commissions. Many of his friends had careers at high schools or colleges, which demanded a great deal of time. This, to an extent, limited them from pursuing their personal art, he said. Palmer recognizes that he is the exception to many artists, having the ability to live off his work.
“There aren’t many artists that made a living without a full-time job,” he said. “I’m lucky to have been one of them.”
Text © 2023 by Jenna Manney
Contributing writer Jenna Manney is a graduate of SUNY Geneseo with a degree in communications. A Hamburg native, she works for Independent Health. Her hobbies include sailing and digital marketing.
Steve Desmond is an award-winning photographer. With his son, Francis, he is the author of A Life of Purpose, which raises money for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research. To view more of Steve's work, search Facebook under "Steve Desmond" and "Desmond's PrimeFocus Photography," or on Instagram at "Stevedesmond9."
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