Clay Palmer is a versatile artist whose portfolio ranges from canvas paintings to large murals. He is accustomed to people noticing his work, but one ink drawing recently earned a place on a bigger stage – a drawing where faith, history and art intersect. “Drunk on the Blood of the Holy Ones” is a Palmer drawing chosen for display in Art of the South, a top regional art show from June 2-30 in Memphis and Nashville.
The drawing depicts three Holocaust victims surrounded by religious persecutors, a subject close to this devout Jehovah’s Witness who graduated on May 6 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Tennessee at Martin. Palmer’s drawing is among 20 works selected for exhibit on June 2 at L. Ross Gallery located at Suite 104, 5040 Sanderlin Ave. in Memphis. The opening reception will be held from 6-8 p.m. at the gallery, and the drawing will remain on display until June 30. Another 20 selected works will be exhibited at the Ground Floor Gallery in Nashville.
Palmer’s creative journey to a major regional art show began close to home. UT Martin was a natural college choice for Dresden High School’s 2013 valedictorian who was both familiar with the campus and personally knew several faculty members. He was accepted into the University Scholars Program, which provides participants both scholarship support and additional academic opportunities. “It (University Scholars) gave me a social group, so I was comfortable once I got on campus,” he said. “It gave me a way to push myself academically, and then in turn it also prepared me for the real world … through the research project.”
Palmer’s first academic choice was to pursue a math-related field, but a passion for social issues and his religious beliefs attracted him to art. “I always liked cartooning, and I wanted to try to put my beliefs, my passions out there, and the only way I felt like I could do that well was through art,” he said.
In addition to University Scholars, Palmer discovered other opportunities to expand his talents and campus engagement. He credits university organizations such as the League of Striving Artists for expanding his artistic experiences and involvement in team projects. He helped to design a dry-erase mural in the summer of 2014 that became part of the university’s bookstore renovation, and he later won a design competition in spring 2015 for a mural that was painted in the Department of Music’s locker room. Palmer also earned the top prize in the League of Striving Artists’ 2016 Guitar as Art contest that features acoustic guitars altered by local artists using 2D media. The contest is an annual event for the Tennessee Soybean Festival.
Although his work has earned many accolades, art influenced by his faith speaks to his knowledge of history and gives him a greater sense of purpose as an artist. His University Scholars project focused on “interpreting the persecution that Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced from the Holocaust onward in visual representations.” His creations include paintings, drawings and sculptures that encompass a two-year span. This project also produced the drawing destined for a wider audience in June. “I’ve always been really influenced by the Holocaust, and actually when I started talking to people about the Holocaust and how Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted during it, too, a lot of people didn’t know that,” he said. “And it’s something I’m really passionate about.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses are maybe best known for their door-to-door ministry, but the group’s neutrality attracted German persecution during World War II. “We don’t participate in any kind of political affiliations, and we don’t fight in wars. We’re conscientious objectors,” Palmer explained. “And because we were considered political outcasts, or derivatives or whatever, they just rounded us all up and threw us in concentration camps.” So, the inspiration for “Drunk on the Blood of the Holy Ones” evolved from wanting to tell this story of persecution and suffering.
“That piece was one of the first drawings I made in this body of work, and it depicts three Holocaust victims. They’re surrounded by all the different characters that have ever committed religious persecution against any kind of Judeo-Christian religion in the past,” he said. The images are cartoon-like but not humorous, allowing Palmer to ask the viewer to consider difficult subject matter without being offended or repulsed.
Reaction to the work is largely favorable. “It’s dark content, but I think there’s always kind of a positive side to it through color choices, or through the victims escaping, or them becoming closer to God … by sticking to their faith, that kind of thing,” he said. “And so there’s always a positive aspect to it, too.”
Fine arts faculty member Jason Stout, adviser to the League of Striving Artists, mentored Palmer through his University Scholars senior project. He sees Palmer’s selection to participate in Art of the South as a major accomplishment. Number: Inc. art journal sponsors the show, which Stout says is “kind of a who’s who of the Tennessee and Southern art scene in surrounding states.” Participating artists normally have more than five years of experience, making Palmer’s selection even more significant. “You might have somebody that’s out of a graduate program, but to have somebody that’s out of an undergraduate program and to be able to have work that is competitive in its dialogue and its visual presence is truly exceptional for somebody,” Stout said. “And it’s … extra exceptional since it’s someone from UTM.”
Stout, an award-winning artist, forecasts a bright future for Palmer in the competitive art world. “I can see Clay at this point kind of really opening up a more of a regional, a national dialogue for faith and how it works in contemporary art, which is something that's really not going on right now,” he said. “I could actually see him working in an educational capacity as well with becoming a professional artist and working in that realm, too.”
Mark Scala, chief curator for The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, reviewed more than 300 entries and included Clay Palmer’s drawing among the 40 total pieces selected for Art of the South. It’s a significant accomplishment for this up-and-coming artist who uses his faith and talent to tell a difficult story.
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