Tom Palmore, the Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin


Murray and James have been life long friends and helped me out a lot when I was first getting started. I remember before my first one-man show at the Marion Locks Gallery, I was getting cold feet and was very worried about my work. They came by my studio to have a look and see what I was so concerned about. I wanted to pull out of the show, but they said, “What the hell are talking about? You’ve completed some good work here, so just buck up and finish the show.” Well, the show was a huge success, and that was 1971, and I haven’t slowed down yet.


When I was first out of the Academy I did commercial work for A.W. Ayers. It was a means to an end, and I was also wholesaling interior products, trying to generate enough money to paint. I was also a bartender for a few months while I was working on the first show with Marion Locks. It was the opposite of art, being a bartender. 


So Friday night I was a bartender, and after the show with Marion Locks, when every piece sold, on Saturday night I was a professional artist.  On vacation in Jamaica I was reflecting on what happened. I sold 18 paintings the opening night. I sold paintings, and then I was taking a nice vacation. I told myself, “I think I can do this again.” In l973 I had a show in NY.  Every year or year and a half since l971 I’ve had a one man show.


MK: You’ve said, “When I first started painting, I didn’t want to do paintings of animals like any other paintings that I’d seen before.  And I didn’t want to be limited by their natural environment.  I wanted my work to have a sense of the unexpected, a sense of surrealism sense of wit.”  How did that express itself in your early work?


TP: I had early notoriety, because Havard, Dessner and I did nightclub paintings for Artemis, a hot spot in Philadelphia. The owner asked Desi—what he wanted to do was keep it simple, no pay, but we had an open tab with no limit. I did a 7 x 10 foot painting of a gorilla, on a l930’s couch, a take off of the nude reclining woman that was a classic painting in bars.


Later, the concept was revisited in the painting, “Odalisque,” that’s in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


MK: You were also quoted as having said, “One of the things that makes my work different from other painters is that most of my work has a sense of wit and humor, which is emphasized with a juxtaposition in the background,. . . For example, a portrait of a frog with bug wallpaper. That’s humorous as well as unexpected.” What are some drawbacks of that sort of wit in establishing a reputation?  How do you see it as an advantage?


TP: Early on I was initially selected for a show at PMA [Philadelphia Museum of Art] by Diane Vanderlip, curator at Moore, later at the Denver Art Museum). I used to work in two and three dimensions.  I did a skyhook.  I made the piece with an elaborate carved gold frame I bought at Freeman’s [auction house], and painted a realistic sky with clouds. It poked out, two to three feet from wall. In a hook, I glued in a pedal tractor also bought from Freeman’s.  I had to take the piece out of the show, because it was thought to be too funny, too silly. 


One important thing is to do paintings about who you are: I like to think I’m witty and humorous. You know, really, you don’t have to paint starving children from Ethiopia to be a serious artist. My work has a sense of wit and the unexpected.  My contemporaries like the juxtaposition.


In some of my paintings animals are suspended, like the Dali photograph [with Philippe Halsman, Dali Atomicus]   of cats in the air. I have paintings of a jackrabbit in mid-air, of a flying bobcat.


To get ideas it’s like fishing, as David Lynch said; sit there for a while and an idea comes.


I base animals on people.  The Duchess of Wister, a chimpanzee, has her nose turned up, and she’s looking down nose. Kind of bossy, with a self-importance, more than just self-assured.  Wister is little Oklahoma town I lived in.


MK: Do you consider that giving your paintings titles is an opportunity or is it a necessity of convention?


TP: The title is one more indication of what the painting is about.


MK:  You’ve painted animals reclining (a gorilla, a tiger) and you also have the image Sweet Dreams.  Would you tell us about Sweet Dreams?  Did your experience at the Academy with cast drawing play into this painting?


TP:  It’s based on Italian sculpture and sleeping, a take-off on them. Cast drawing, taught you to think in three dimensions.  Lighting showed you how to do the rendering. I would look at the casts a lot. 


I’ve done a lot of paintings of sculpture with animals. Plato with chicken on his head.  Darwin with finch on his head. Socrates with a chicken.  Darwin with a chimpanzee.


MK: You called one of your shows “Other Earthlings”?


TP: What I used to do was limit a show to three different subjects: for example, bobcats, bears and buffalos. I found that when I did that if I’d get an idea for a tiger, I couldn’t do it because I’d given myself that limitation. Then I gave myself permission to do whatever, but I still wanted to name the concept.  In this case the concept was looking at other creatures we share earth with.


MK: Do you see your paintings as having a political aspect?  If so, how do you feel/what do you think about the movement to abolish zoos?


TP:  We should provide the animals with a decent place to live.  There’s a movement to provide a more natural space for them in zoos, but the animals are still in prison. A tiger in a cage is like an empty shell.  I have mixed emotions.


I hate seeing big cats pace and or gorillas in an environment that’s not productive or providing challenging entertainment. On the other hand I have photographed animals in zoos.


MK: Many of the titles you’ve given your shows are arresting: “Gorillas, Midgets, and a Couple of Dogs” (1971), “Trophies” (1973),  “Paint By Numbers,”(1977) “Performing Animals, Route 66” (1985), “Birds, Bulls, and a Couple of Monkeys” (1989), “Animal World, Based on a true story”(1996), “Other Earthlings” (1998); on the other hand you’ve used “Recent Paintings” and “Texas Wildlife.” When do you decide to use one of the titles like those above? What led you to “Paint By Numbers” and “Trophies”?


TP: The title “Paint By Numbers” came from something I saw in a zoo. In the Philadelphia Zoo, the primates were in a concrete enclosure, with a painting of a jungle on the wall behind it. The painting reminded me of the paint-by-numbers style, so the animals were in front of a paint-by-numbers picture. It was supposed to be wilderness, but of course to the animals it probably looked like a wall. I went down to Hobby Lobby and bought one of the pictures, then painted over the paint-by-number canvas. A step closer to the unexpected. That’s how it started.


“Trophies” came from a whole series of when I panted figures, nude women reclining on couch with stuffed animals. A woman also can be considered a trophy, a nude woman in the back of a Rolls Royce. Also, I boxed at the University of Nevada, Marino.  One of the things a fighter does is to give his gloves to someone, and that’s another kind of tropy.  I painted fighters who were superior athletes—like the Ever Brothers and Vinny Briscoe.  I also painted Randall Tex Cobb who wasn’t a professional model, but a friend.


It’s my sense of humor. Titles are fun:  Welcome to Animaland.


MK: An even more personal question:  are any of the companion animals/pets in your household? And which term do you prefer?


TP:  The term isn’t that important to me. My little furry friends? I had many different animals, but none now. On the ranch we had one of every kind. At auctions I would buy cows for color patterns, for a certain look.


I had cats and dogs, Bouviers, for fourteen years. Gina [then my wife] had a horse. Gina was mission-oriented.  She had a whole program to show horses.  In a five-year period, she went from zero to a six-time world champion.  With Quarter Horses she raised number four in rank.


MK:  While you raised horses, did you paint them?  If not, why not?


TP: If I’d done a painting of the champion horse, I wouldn’t have ever been able to sell the painting.  I did do four horses, but not Isabella. I have a time deadline when I’m working:  show obligations as well as commitments to produce commissions for people.


MK: Would you tell us something about how you work?  How do you use photography in your subjects?  How do you use photoshop, if you do?


TP: I take my own photos—I’m an average photographer—or buy photos from wildlife photographers, like Weaver Lily who owns Friday, Saturday, Sunday [a restaurant in Philadelphia], or from a man in Santa Fe. Weaver knows perspective and lighting. I tell him what I’m looking for, and he’ll email photos to me.  We talk about them, and he’ll print them and send them Federal Express.


I’ll work from a series of photos about a subject.  Body, head, etc. and put them together, sometimes I change color a little bit. I do a lot of changes in the painting. But I don’t use Photoshop.


MK: Sometimes you paint on board, sometimes on cotton canvas? How do you choose the support?


TP:  Size determines whether I use the canvas or board.  For 30 X 30 I use panel; from 30 X 40 or larger, canvas.  I use Masonite or poplar for the panels.


I use a small spray gun and spray coats of gesso, let it dry, then lightly sand it so it has a slight tooth. It pulls the paint right off the brush. 


Otto Decker talked me into using fine glass in gesso. I roll it on with soft roller, and it has a slight pebble effect. Then I lightly sand it.


You get the glass through companies that sell equipment for sandblasting: silicon glass, small size, equivalent to 220 to 300 sandpaper. This enables you to blend the paint evenly and smoothly. In a quart jar of thin gesso, use about four tablespoonfuls. Keep it stirred up. Use just a bit of turp or stand oil in the paint.



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© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Click on any thumbnail below to view a larger photo of the painting:


   Elegant Portrait




   Fern Valley




   Sea Otter with Ducks



   Sweet Dreams

Image Courtesy of Lew Allen Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM -

Lew Allen Contemporary will host a solo exhibition of Tom Palmore's work from August 1 - August 24, 2008




All Images © Tom Palmore and are used with permission.