The artist who earned national acclaim for her life-like sculpture of comedienne Lucille Ball was encouraged by Nazareth professors to pursue her talent for sculpture, but first she painted portraits for nearly 20 years.
Carolyn Palmer ‘83 says in both painting and sculpture, she has always had a heartfelt passion and strong yearning to bring “life to the inanimate.”
Working in sculpture now for 14 years has given her a keener sense of three-dimensional forms. “Even while walking through an airport, I’m always studying how light plays on the planes of people’s faces, revealing each person’s unique features. You can discern form by the light and dark hues of the shadows.”
Palmer likes to keeps her early clay models, especially if they survive the mold-making process. She has clays, marble, and bronze castings throughout her home — Orville and Wilbur Wright flanking the front door, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the living room, Hillary Clinton in a corner, Donald Trump in a closet.
“The one work that I’m most satisfied with is Pope Francis. My intention is always to create an emotional presence to my work so that the viewer will have an intimate experience. With Pope Francis, I feel that his essence is ‘there.’ It’s like you’re being given a sacred blessing by this very special pontiff. My wish is that others feel the same and can sense his compassion and warmth.”
A marble version greeted the pope at the papal residence in New York City, where he gave it a special benediction in 2015. Her first bronze edition was delivered to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 2016, to be permanently displayed in a marble alcove at the entrance in the spring of 2017. Palmer also is having miniatures made for the cathedral bookstore.
Asked if there’s someone she’d love to sculpt, Palmer thinks of the Dalai Lama. “Whoever I sculpt, I work for months with their essence in my studio; a certain relationship develops. I’m totally inspired being in the presence of spiritually enlightened people.”
But sculpting can take its toll. “I just hope my hands stay strong. I love using French Le Beau Touche clays, but clays take muscle power to knead and pound onto the armatures — lots of wrist, hand, and thumb movement. I’ve purchased so many tools to replace the ‘hands-on’ technique, but there is nothing like the tactile feel of my own flesh on clay, bronze, or marble. Now I pay the price by wearing wrist braces at night to give my hands a steady rest.”
The sculpture that has gotten the most public attention so far is the I Love Lucy sitcom star. After studying CBS reruns for hours, Palmer chose to capture Ball in a polka dot dress with her head held high, hand on hip, happily stepping across her honored spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “I wanted to give her that ‘Lucy’ attitude,” says Palmer. “She’s confidently walking on her Hollywood star, playfully pulling on her stylish dress, looking totally glamorous with those long eyelashes and a string of pearls.”
The unveiling prompted loud cheers from Lucy’s fans. Capturing Lucy’s eyelashes and makeup was a particular challenge in bronze. “I believe a patina makes or breaks a piece,” Palmer says, explaining that if the surface is too shiny it looks plastic, or too matte it looks like a rock. Palmer was chosen from 67 applicants after outraged fans called a 2009 statue by another sculptor “Scary Lucy.” A Facebook page demanding a new statue went viral in 2015.
Palmer plans to create a book about the 700-pound Lucy project.
“The courses I took at Nazareth moved and pushed me to find out about my talents — to a point I’d look back and say, ‘Wow, did I actually do that?’ — and it was the professors who taught me to be more expressive and creative.”
Art Professor Ron Netsky, with whom Palmer studied painting, says he enjoys seeing the great sculptor she has become. “Carolyn has that rare ability to capture the expression and body language so perfectly, the Lucy sculpture feels like it's alive.”
Carolyn Palmer's bronze sculpture of comedienne Lucille Ball weighs 700 pounds. Photos by Mark Zagorski except for image of trio: Palmer, the statue, and Jeffrey Green '16, who attended the unveiling, provided by Green.
Palmer has sculpted public and historical figures for museums, public settings, and collectors. Subjects have included: