If James Brown had a counterpart in the local art scene it could well be John Ross Palmer, even without the 2014 video that dubbed him “The Hardest Working Man In the Art Business” in celebration of his 40th birthday. The third-generation Houstonian (and fifth-generation Texan) is also an author, philanthropist and founder of the so-called Escapist movement and Escapist Mentorship Program; his mission, according to Palmer’s website, is to demonstrate that “through hard work and ingenuity the stereotype of the struggling artist can be forever destroyed.”
Palmer, a 2010 finalist for the statewide Hunting Art Prize (which has, sadly, since been suspended), is certainly prolific. The dozens of offerings in his online store reveal a fondness for animals, especially horses; mountains; hot-air balloons; cities (this 33” X 51” canvas of Houston runs $625) and guns, with a bold, impressionistic aesthetic that at times flirts with Pop Art and abstract expressionism. His works hang at Tony’s, a favorite dining spot, and in the private collections of father-son Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. At the moment he is designing invitations for this fall’s 20th-anniversary gala at Bush Senior’s presidential library in College Station, and is even willing to offer an informed opinion on the younger President Bush’s painting abilities.
“Oh, I think it’s very good,” says Palmer. “I’m very impressed. I just think about when he started. If he had started when he was a teenager, just the evolution of where it could be now. What I like about it is you know who the person in the art is, but there’s a spin that [has] his personality in it. Instead of photorealistic, it’s better.”
Like many other Houstonians, the devastation inflicted on the Houston area by Hurricane Harvey left Palmer scrambling for a way to help. Vacationing in Maine with his husband, with whom he owns the John Palmer Art gallery and studio in the Heights, in short order Palmer found himself invited to the Bush family’s seaside vacation retreat, Walker’s Point, at the behest of Jean Becker, Bush 41’s chief of staff.
“She’s saying, ‘We’ve gotta figure out what we can do from here,’” Palmer recalls, “and I’m in Maine too, in a beautiful place but I don’t want to be there. I want to be home to figure out what’s happening here: do we have issues with our animals, the house, studio, neighbors, elderly people that we know? Right then I just [said] ’Jean, how could we use my art to do something to help the relief?’”
The answer is “On Board with Houston,” which Palmer says took two days to create. The painting depicts seven boats, each bearing a different letter of “Houston,” linked together with a rope. The idea, Palmer says, is to “create an image that would be universal for the healing of Houston through the flood.”
“I did start with images that were maybe of people in boats or people being rescued, and then I thought, ‘That’s obvious that’s what’s happening’ and I wanted to create an image that could be ongoing [about] the relief of the hurricane, or the people coming together,” he explains. “That’s the boats that are moored together with the rope. And then within each letter I put the little dots, which are symbolic of the thousand points of light. What’s interesting about art is everything is subjective to what’s in your head.”
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That even extends to Becker’s interpretation of his painting, Palmer chuckles.
“She said, ‘Are these lobster buoys?’ – because they’re in Maine,” the artist says. “So I said, ‘Whatever you want them to be, that’s what they are. If you want them to be there, that’s great, but these are boats on Buffalo Bayou or Brays Bayou.’”
Palmer says the original, as signed by Bush 41, now is headed to the headquarters of the ex-president’s Points of Light Foundation, where it will be used to fund hurricane relief efforts, presumably via auction. But the reason he’s talking to the Houston Press is to spread the word about the $35 prints of “On Board with Houston” now available through his site. The way Palmer figures, they offer a way for Houstonians (or even non-Houstonians) to support our community’s recovery without being intimidated by the often exorbitant monetary figures liberally tossed about within the art world. They ought to look great over the fireplace, too.
“I wanted to create something that anybody who wanted to help financially [could] do something, [whoever] could afford a $35 print,” he says. “I wanted to do something at a price [where] almost anybody could help. Because sometimes I think people think they need to give thousands of dollars to make a difference.”