Vineyard Artist's Work Chosen for Black History Month Stamp

 

Thursday, February 1, 2024

This year’s Black History Month stamp, honoring judge Constance Baker Motley, is the work of an acclaimed Vineyard artist who divides his time between the Island and Atlanta. Known for his exuberantly reverent portraiture of Black women, men and children, Charly Palmer had no inkling the U.S. Postal Service was looking at his work until he got the call.

 

“If I stay obedient to what I’m doing, being of service, being a mentor, telling a powerful and important story, I’m rewarded... with a project like the U.S. stamp,” he said during a Zoom interview with the Gazette.

Mr. Palmer’s portrait of Judge Motley was unveiled Wednesday at the Constance Baker Motley Recreation Center in New York City. It is adorned with flowers, a motif the painter has added to his images since his mother died in 2008.

 

According to the postal service, Constance Baker Motley began her legal career when she was hired by future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she worked for 20 years and argued 10 cases before the Supreme Court, winning nine.

Ms. Motley then ran for elected office, becoming the first African American woman in the state senate and the first woman elected Manhattan borough president.  President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her in 1966 to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where she became chief judge in 1982 and senior judge in 1986. Judge Motley died in 2005.

 

Mr. Palmer’s work is also being celebrated this month at the Oak Bluffs Library as part of their Black History Month exhibit.

On the Island, Mr. Palmer and his wife, Emory University professor of sociology Karida Brown, live in Vineyard Haven. “That’s where we go to escape and write and illustrate,” he said. The couple recently released The New Brownies Book, an anthology of literature and artwork subtitled A Love Letter to Black Families, which was inspired by a children’s magazine edited by W.E.B. DuBois more than 100 years ago.

 

The book includes Langston Hughes’ first published poetry, mentored by Mr. DuBois, along with works by contemporary Black writers and artists who Mr. Palmer and Ms. Brown invited to join the project.

 

“It was a resounding yes [from] about 50 participating artists and writers,” he said. He expects that about 10 of the book’s contributors will take part in activities with children on the Vineyard this summer, sponsored by the Knowhere Art Gallery and Center of Nowhere Gallery, which represent his work.

 

Both galleries are located in Oak Bluffs and owned by Valerie Francis and her husband Ralph Groce III, who first introduced Mr. Palmer and Ms. Brown to the Vineyard during the pandemic.

On their long drive from Atlanta for that first visit, the couple began to feel something unusual, Mr. Palmer recalled.

“Heading to the Island, the tension and the stress that was in our bodies slowly started to go away, [and] that has been our experience every time we’ve gone,” he said. “This is a place to breathe, because this is definitely an Island that is alive.”

 

Last summer, working at his Vineyard Haven home, Mr. Palmer changed mediums and began working with clay — for the first time since college, he said, adding that he completed his first bust of an author he’s painted many times.

 

“I absolutely love James Baldwin. He’s a subject that never gets old to me,” Mr. Palmer said.

He titled the sculpture Baldwin on the Vineyard, because James Baldwin never visited the Island, Mr. Palmer said.  

 

Islanders can see Mr. Palmer’s paintings, along with drawings of Mr. Baldwin, Nina Simone and other Black activists and intellectuals, along with portraits of children and a striking image of the Polar Bears swimming group, at the Oak Bluffs Public Library exhibit.

 

Selected and hung by Ms. Francis, the works are on display in the community room during library hours.

Meanwhile, Mr. Palmer is already looking forward to another summer on the Vineyard.

 

“That’s absolutely the plan,” he said. “I just wrapped up two new children’s books and now I’m trying to [finish] a few original fine art pieces for shows.... Then I will be there.”

 

The exhibit at the Oak Bluffs Library runs from Feb. 3 to 24, with an opening reception on Feb. 3 from 2 to 4 p.m.

 

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