Local artist Kirk Palmer paints himself into the homeless image

“[My show is just] a way of explaining that, as human beings, we’re all going to confront situations in our lives that are very tragic and very hard to deal with,” says Palmer. “It doesn’t take too much to prompt one to make some very poor choices in their lives and end up in very bad situations.”


[image-1]Palmer’s series includes highly personal images of himself and his family juxtaposed against visceral, photo-realistic images of homelessness in St. Petersburg. Portraits of his mother and father abut a cityscape of the Open Air Post Office’s 4th-Avenue façade, complete with a supine man in the middle of the street, a man standing over him, and another man passing by indifferently. Palmer’s use of Roman columns and harsh perspectives is reminiscent of Piero della Francesca’s “The Flagellation of Christ," but departs from della Francesca in its gritty portrayal of ragged human figures and their separation from the nearby government building. Entitled “Carnival," Palmer explains that, although the work is a composite of actual events he’s witnessed on that corner, the scene, itself, is very much true-to-life.


“It’s an area where a lot of the merchants have complained about a lot of what goes on there,” says Palmer. “I’ve personally seen a lot of violence there and seen the police down there frequently trying to address some of the problems.


“There’s a lot of tension, there’s just so much going on, and so much drama in the lives of some of the people that are down there.”


Another painting depicts a sleeping man, wrapped in a tattered blanket, tucked uncomfortably into the corner of a building. The painting is based on a photograph Palmer took walking through downtown St. Petersburg late at night.


[image-2]“I felt very reluctant to cross that line and take a photograph of someone who is attempting to have a moment of peace.


“I didn’t realize his eyes were open. That night was very cold. We were going through the cold snap. I really don’t know how people can do it, how they can live like that in that kind of cold.”


Palmer says the portraits of himself and his parents personalize the topic of homelessness and comment on the relationship between financial instability in America and the breakdown of family and community.


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“I’m not a social scientist, I don’t keep track of statistics on homelessness, but it’s just my own sort of visceral interpretation of what the causality of this is.”


Once, when Palmer was in Egypt, he was called upon to give a speech at a school about what it means to be an American in Egypt.


He worked very hard to translate ideas like individualism, because “you go to some countries that are very culturally homogenous, and it’s easy to identify what a Norwegian is based on their linguistic commonality, or Japan based on their linguistic commonality and other things, but in the United States, it’s all about an idea, and that idea, at the end of the day, is freedom.”


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Halfway through the speech, the students interrupted him. Individualism is what’s wrong with Americans, they said, because individualism is an attack on the family.


Palmer's family is spread out all over the country, from California to Florida, and even down to South America, where his mother still lives.


Palmer says that, although there’s a narrative running through his paintings, it’s ultimately up to the viewer to construct a narrative that’s personal to them. Still, he hopes that one particular message comes across.


“Despite the fact that a lot of these people can be very offensive, despite the fact that that is how we tend to look at a lot of these panhandlers, the people who are drunk when they accost us for money…we have to look beneath that and try to understand and have some compassion, and understand the causality of what puts them there in the first place. I’m trying to do that by painting myself into the whole milieu.”

Kirk Palmer rubbed elbows with jungle tribesmen and their families as a child growing up in Bolivia. He traveled to the Middle East as a foreign area officer in the Marines and witnessed some of the most abject poverty that exists on this planet. He once walked through the streets of the City of the Dead in Cairo, where families subsist on less than a dollar a day and sleep in ancient catacombs. But nowhere has he seen poverty like he sees in the States.

“I’ve lived in so many other places in the third world,” Palmer says, standing in his home studio amidst several works-in-progress, “and I’ve never quite encountered these problems the way I have here, locally, in my own community.”

Palmer is finishing his BFA in painting at Eckerd College and is preparing for his senior show, scheduled to hang in the Morean Art Center’s Progress Energy Gallery from May 1st to May 15th.

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