Tom Palmore, one of the most sought-after artists in America, will hold his first show in Durango at Sorrel Sky Gallery this weekend, and it's only fitting: If owner Shanan Campbell Wells hadn't seen one of Palmore's paintings 17 years ago, the gallery likely never would have opened in 2001.
"Falling in love with his work is what solidified my direction and career - he was the first artist whose work hooked me," Wells said earlier this week, preparing for Palmore's arrival.
"I can remember that moment, how I felt, what that piece did for me. To me, that's what art is supposed to do, and that's how it brings light into our lives. So it's big. He's big."
It's hard not to get hooked on Palmore's inimitable portraits. He paints animals, and only animals, but he does it like no one else.
Each subject, be it a primate, feline or canine, projects a personality that not even photography can capture. Yet Palmore paints with such an attention to detail that it often requires a double-take to ascertain the image is the result of the human hand and not a camera.
What makes his portraits true art, and not technical reproductions, is Palmore's ability to convey his subject's emotions through their eyes.
"As humans, we're so used to looking at each others' eyes, and two dots on the paper doesn't work. I may repaint them four times during a painting, but that's how important they are," Palmore said.
"I did one of a heron that I sold in New York City, and the buyer was pleased, but then he returned it to the gallery. The owner said he had it in his den, and it kept looking at him and started bothering him; it was staring a hole through him," he said.
Palmore has been painting for almost a year in preparation for his Durango visit, and the Sorrel Sky exhibit features 23 new works. Each is a classic example of the work he's done for 35 years.
But Palmore the man is even more intriguing than Palmore the artist, which is saying something. He's funny, honest, crude, humble, thoughtful, respectful and smart. The biography of the Oklahoma native could, and did, fill a book (2008's Earthlings, the title of which reflects Palmore's respect for his fellow planet dwellers, human or otherwise), but the highlights alone make great copy.
"I literally went from being a bartender to a professional artist in one day," Palmore said last week from his Oklahoma home.
Here's the short version:
In 1971, after graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia (where he became lifelong friends with famed director David Lynch, among others), Palmore was tending bar when he landed a one-man show at the Marion Locks Gallery. He sold all 17 paintings that day, and his career was launched.
After 12 years in Philadelphia growing his reputation in the Northeast (and cultivating his love of professional boxing, but that's another story), he relocated to Santa Fe in 1980. His knack for meeting the right people continued, and he became a fixture at Elaine Horwitch's galleries in New Mexico and Arizona.
The road wasn't always a smooth one: Palmore's odyssey included five marriages and a stint in prison in the early '80s (where he was a cellmate of first sibling Roger Clinton - that, too, is another story), but he's very matter-of-fact and open talking about either the bad times or the good. It's just that there have been a lot more good.
"When people look back on their life and say I don't have any regrets - well, I do. I have a whole pile of them. That's the reality of it," Palmore said.
"But I also love what I do. Most days I can't wait to get out to my studio, and I feel very blessed to be able to do that. There are so many jobs that are just drudgery, and people do them for the money.
"I've never been a nine-to-fiver in the regular world. I've put in more hours than most, but I'm my own boss, and I'm only limited by my imagination."
There isn't enough space in The Durango Herald, or any other publication for that matter, to do justice to either the personal or professional career of Tom Palmore. He is, in short, one of the greatest and most-respected living American artists, and the result of Wells' persistence (she's been trying for eight years to lure him to town) is a landmark event for the Durango art world.
"Everything he does should be in a museum," Wells said.