Art That Is Larger Than Life

UCO Teacher Records History in Murals
Artist Bob Palmer knows how to choose a canvas. But these days, he won’t settle for a 16×20-inch stretched cotton; his canvas may be as large as 250×45 feet. Palmer started painting murals in 1991 and maybe should have bought stock in a couple of paint companies. Exterior acrylics are used in 99% of Palmer’s works for churches, schools, private residences, businesses, towns and cities. He has completed over 600 murals in Oklahoma, Arizona, Washington, D.C., Canada, Mexico and Croatia.

The Bethany resident treks daily to Edmond to teach art at UCO and can be found almost anywhere in the state on weekends with a paintbrush in his hand. His private company, Palmer Studios, accepts commissions and he has painted murals on dining room walls, on buildings hundreds of feet long, and everything in between. His subjects are as varied as the locations in which he paints. Flags, religious scenes, giant postcards, historical scenes, people, classic cars, even entire towns have been painted on buildings. His brushes transform many surfaces, whether rough or smooth, but he paints primarily on brick, concrete and stucco.

Mural painting became a part of UCO’s curriculum in 1995, and Palmer takes his students on the road to paint murals. Between school murals and his own business, Palmer says he does “a mural project almost every weekend.” Most murals take from two to three days to complete and prices vary. Although he does no advertising, Palmer’s workload can mushroom, like when he went to Cushing to do one mural and did seven. Kingfisher scheduled two murals but the order changed to ten once he started painting. Palmer says, “Every project has a story.” After spending a few days with the locals, Palmer and his students feel like family. He says, “My foreign students get to see the flavor of the people.”

Many of Palmer’s former students have specialized in the field, including some who came to Edmond to study murals and returned to their homes in Croatia and Macedonia; they now paint murals there. Palmer speaks of student Summer Wheat, “She went to Chicago, earned an MFA, and is one of the best mural painters in Chicago.” He also speaks of students that are excellent muralists in Florida and in Los Angeles. One of them had a great obstacle to overcome – he was afraid of heights and couldn’t use a ladder. The young student from China wanted so much to please Dr. Palmer that he learned to paint, quite skillfully, with a 20-foot extension brush.
Many murals bring specific challenges, including four for the dome at the State Capitol. Permanent scaffolding only one inch away from the wall prohibited any projection, so all designs had to be drawn freehand for the 3-story, very visible canvas. Brushstrokes were also difficult with the artists almost jammed against the wall.

The grain elevator just south of I-40 in Oklahoma City was also a tall order to fill. A large and unusual shape, the labor-intensive project, “OKC Rocks,” took all summer for Palmer and two of his former students to complete, working on crane scaffolding. “OKC Rocks” presents a huge Oklahoma flag waving against the face and crevices of the elevator. Commissioned for Oklahoma’s 100th birthday celebration in 2007 by Oklahoma’s Centennial Commission, the mural complements a small herd of bronze horses running across a narrow strip of prairie in downtown Oklahoma City, adjacent to Bricktown. Only part of a massive sculpture, the frenzied horses depict one of Oklahoma’s land runs.

“OKC Rocks” and many other murals can be viewed at any time, but interior murals require advance planning and permission. Libraries, schools, churches, restaurants and other businesses may have provided murals for public viewing but their hours of operation need to be respected. At Edmond’s Chisholm Elementary, students enroute to their media center pass by a long, muraled wall where they can touch their state’s capitol building and a huge bison, the state’s official animal. While eating lunch, the children are surrounded by Oklahoma history and western lore where Palmer and his students painted murals on all four walls of the cafeteria.

A detailed chuckwagon, the first “mobile kitchen” and a perfect subject for a lunchroom, accompanies plenty of cowboys and horses on a cattle drive over the famed Chisholm Trail. Longhorns shy away from a covered wagon carrying branding irons while cowhands heat the irons over an open fire. The school cafeteria is spotless, although mules kick up enough imaginary dust on its north wall to obscure their legs and the wheels of two wagons. This attention to detail translates from Palmer to his art students.

Palmer says, “I love educating,” and gave up his position in administration at the university to spend more time teaching murals. The UCO Mural Program is one of only a few in the nation, unique because students apprentice on large works as class projects. As painter, professor, mentor and muralist, he shares this advice with his students: “Don’t be average. Find what you do best.” His students saw that apply to Dr. Palmer in 2000 when he won two coveted awards. He was named “Outstanding Educator for Higher Education” by the Oklahoma Art Educators Association and received an “Outstanding Community Arts Effort for a Group” for his work at the Oklahoma State Capitol. Palmer is quick to praise his hard-working students and says, “Everything is a team effort.”

On one trip to Canada, Palmer’s students painted a mural in a hallway while he conducted a workshop in the same building. Although they did an excellent job, he couldn’t help them paint and voiced his disappointment to a colleague. She told him, “You’re forgetting the fact that students pay you the highest compliment when they don’t need you any more.”

Had he not pursued art, Palmer says, without hesitation, that he could have been a professional gardener. His back yard bursts with vibrant color from flowers and shrubs, serving as a quiet retreat for the Palmers, who have been married for 32 years. As for art, what would he like to paint that he hasn’t painted yet? “Optical illusion – like Escher,” Palmer says. He also would like to travel more and absolutely loves the Grand Canyon. No surprise there. Would that not be a huge canvas? Perfect for a muralist to ponder.

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