Story and photo by Darl Devault, Contributing Editor
For passersby looking at a large public art mural painted on a wall in Oklahoma chances are it was painted by former University of Central Oklahoma art professor Bob Palmer, 70, or one of his former students.
The renowned Bethany muralist’s calendar is crowded with the commissions, chores and deadlines Oklahoma’s most viewed artist attends to these days.
He continues to add to his busy calendar by submitting proposals on large mural projects. Palmer, who earned a doctorate of education at Oklahoma State University, recently submitted a proposal to paint three of The Pathway to Hope Public Art Trail underpasses in Tulsa. The six underpasses are beneath Interstate 244 from Main Street to Greenwood Avenue, planned to honor the vibrant history of the Greenwood District.
Palmer Studios, Inc., a consortium of his best former students during his 30-year art professorship, is in demand. He is busy marketing his painting talents and historical perspective through his and his former students painting career.
Sometimes this means in-depth proposals to selection committees, while other times his vast legacy of 3,800 murals makes gaining work so much easier. This happens when a previous client calls and tells him he is needed for a massive project.
The internationally known artist, yes international because of his works in Canada, Mexico, Macedonia, Zagreb the capital of Croatia and Eastern Europe, is in demand. With the advent of the internet, when people want the most talented muralists possible, they have a global reach. Palmer has been hired from Oklahoma to paint murals in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Tennessee and Louisiana
“Retired from teaching in 2014, I still work my career every day, in some form or fashion, even when I am not busy painting a mural,” Palmer said. “Now a days it seems people want us to do larger ones, with more detail about their agendas or concerns and I have to be ready with plenty of supplies to make that happen.”
Successful nationally known Oklahoma sculptor Joel Randell said he was fortunate to get into one of Palmer’s traditional painting classes at UCO in 1993. Randell went on to help Palmer complete 450 murals around the state.
“His quiet insistence that I trust my talent, telling us to paint big during the semester helped me learn to paint in an impactful way to create colorful and lifelike murals.” Randell said. “I think that Bob can serve as an inspiration for all of us of the power of mentoring a new generation of artists. The new budgeting for public art across our communities is transforming the cultural landscape in Oklahoma towns and cities.”
Oklahoma art historians say Palmer had a lot to do with Edmond’s City of Art status by showing the way to engaging its citizens and visitors with public art.
The art rich community began with more than 100 sculptures and paintings. This was sparked 30 years ago when Palmer first took his mural painting class’s artists off campus from the University of Central Oklahoma to begin an intense mural painting campaign. This emphasis on adding public art to the community stretched seven semesters before they ran out of walls to paint in the downtown and outlying Edmond area.
This intense emphasis on public art in Edmond sparked many other public art installations, mostly focused on sculptures. The city created the Edmond Visual Arts Commission in 2001, half funded by Edmond’s Art in Public Places Program. It commissioned many art pieces placed across Edmond’s grassy intersections, city streets, business entrances and parks during the past 20 years.
Growing to more than 260 murals, sculptures and installations, Edmond exploded with public art. Edmond utility, transformer and traffic boxes are currently being transformed into works of art.
“As a public art muralist when you paint a scene on a huge scale the viewer is engaged through the powerful lens of their cultural heritage,” Palmer said. “My former students and I have done so many, when I retired, I finally put some of the best and largest into a book that has sold well.”
His hard back coffee table book “Painting Oklahoma and Beyond” with 500 photos of his murals is available at Painting Oklahoma and Beyond illustrates state murals (oklahomabooksonline.com).
“While other artists have paintings in the permanent collection of prestigious museums, my pride is based on far more people seeing mine daily,” Palmer said.
His last three decades as a prolific muralist means more of his art is on public display in Oklahoma than any artist in history and will remain so well into the future.
Palmer says while some artists have their photo taken with famous people, he tries his best to capture the normal street scene the viewer might have seen from the past at its most colorful and most robust.
“This mural work puts me on the road a lot. But I try to make sure the majority of my time away from home is applying paint to my murals,” Palmer said. “Along the way I have met so many neat people here in Oklahoma it has made it a fun, exciting life.”
“My wife has been my biggest fan. Starting off she wanted to keep track of every piece of art I did. After two years she realized that was not going to work and was happy to share her husband with the world,” Palmer said, referring to his wife of 48 years, Carolyn.