Artistic life features drawing, music, trees

By Wayne Bryan Published April 7, 2014 at 12:12 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Linda Palmer thought she wanted to be a professional singer, so she entered Oklahoma Baptist University as a music major. There, she realized that her other passion — drawing — was her true calling. Having already done a series of drawings of Arkansas’ Champion Trees, Palmer said she now wants to write a book about the specimens, which are the largest known trees of their species in the state.

If a career is like a journey, Linda Palmer said she has found a good ride, and she will keep going for a while.

“Working on the Champion Trees was supposed to be a five-year project,” Palmer said. “I did 18 large colored-pencil drawings of trees and smaller detail drawings of foliage that became part of a traveling show in 2012. It is going all over Arkansas, and it ends this December. Now I have done 21 large ones and 20 smaller ones, and I’m starting on another large tree, a hackberry tree.”

A Champion Tree is one that is usually the oldest or largest representative of a particular species of a tree in the state or the nation. The exhibition will move to Pine Bluff on Thursday and will be on display at the Arts and Science Center. The exhibition, organized by the Arkansas Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, will be on display until May 21, when it will move on to its next location.

Palmer’s Champion Tree project has already taken her 7,000 miles around the state, and she said she doesn’t see it ending anytime soon.

“The list of Champion Trees keeps growing in Arkansas,” Palmer said. “I enjoy the research about the trees, so I am always looking for the next one.”

The Hot Springs artist said the idea of the Champion Tree project grew from one drawing she did in 2006.

“I did a drawing of an old live oak I had seen in Texas, and I called the drawing Great Mother Tree, Palmer said. Then I a got a letter from a woman in North Little Rock who said she knew the ‘Great Father Tree’ and told me how to find it in Keo. It was a magnificent bur oak. I photographed it, hugged it and even danced around it.”

While talking about her arboreal find to Jean Wallace, director of parks and recreation in Hot Springs, Wallace told Palmer that the oak was probably a Champion Tree. Palmer was told that the state’s largest tree of a specific species is catalogued by the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

I thought, ‘I know what am going to do now.’ This was fun,” she said. “I did some research and found the list. That started it all, and I’m still finding and drawing the trees.”

Along with the statewide tour of her drawings of trees, a talk with one of her friends opened another avenue for her art.

“I told Dorothy Morris (an arts patron in Hot Springs) that I wished I could make a film about the trees, and she said, ‘I can do that,’” Palmer said. “She contacted AETN (Arkansas Educational Television Network) and got them interested in a documentary that was broadcast on the network last month.”

These were not the first trees Palmer had painted. She said trees are so much a part of her landscape paintings that she calls them treescapes.

“I grew up in a rural area, and I was just naturally interested,” she said, smiling. “As an artist, I found that trees were my muse.”

Palmer was painting trees long before she came to Hot Springs in 1991.

“I used to go to Colorado a lot, and I loved painting aspen trees,” she said. “Then I thought, why busy myself with aspens when I am surrounded with the great Arkansas trees?”

Palmer, born Linda Jean Williams in 1942, always knew she was going to be an artist, but in the beginning, she had another art in mind.

“When I was a child, I thought I would be a singer,”Palmer said. “I was raised on a farm and drove the hay truck, and I worked picking cotton to make money for my voice lessons.”

She entered Oklahoma Baptist University as a music major, but that’s when she found out she wasn’t cut out to be a professional singer.

“I loved singing, but I didn’t like performing,” Palmer said. “I still sing in church and in a chorus, but no one in Hot Springs thinks of me as a singer.”

While her emphasis had been on music, young Linda was also drawing.

“I remember when I was 5 years old, people came to our house,” Palmer said. “When the grown-ups talked, I was quiet in the corner drawing the face of one of the visitors, and I was amazed how much it did resemble the person.”

But drawing was just her enjoyment over the years. There was no art program in her lower grades, and in high school, Palmer said, she concentrated on her music.

It wasn’t until she was married with children and living in Fort Smith that she saw a painting that had been created by the mother of one of her friends.

“I said I wanted to learn to paint, one of these days,” Palmer said. “When my youngest children were in preschool two days a week, I talked to the art teacher at what was then West Arkansas Community College (now the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith). I showed him some drawings but let him know I had limited time and no instruction in art of any kind.”

Palmer said the teacher replied, “Good, you are a blank canvas.”

Art classes “opened doors” for Palmer. After a few years of studying and creating, she started a gallery and studio in Fort Smith.

“I shared the studio with three other artists,” she said. “I had four years of wonderful studio time. We did a lot of figure drawing together.”

When the other artists moved on, she relocated the gallery to a place for her own work and to display and sell the works of other artists.

Artist friends of Palmer’s in Hot Springs carried some of her art in their gallery, and they began to encourage her to move there.

“I looked at some other places to move. I thought about going to Santa Fe. There I would just be another artist,” she said, “but the art scene in Hot Springs was a baby at the time, and I wanted to help it grow and be a partner in the process.”

She said the gallery walk had just started when she purchased a building at 800 Central Ave., then a less-than-desirable part of downtown.

“This area was dark then,” she said. “The art community was instrumental in bringing this part of downtown back to life. Now it is restaurants and theaters and gallery after gallery. A lot of tourists come here for the galleries.”

Palmer said that instead of being fierce competitors, the gallery operators in Hot Springs worked together to promote the arts community. They started the popular gallery walk, which is now in its 25th year.

“I think Hot Springs is a different kind of place because of the variety of people from all over the world,” Palmer said. “They are also very creative people — all concentrated in one small area.”

She also said Hot Springs reaps dividends from the lake and the natural beauty found in Hot Springs National Park and the Ouachita Mountains.

“I have friends from Texas who tell me all the time, ‘These are the first mountains we can get to,’” Palmer said. “They say they come for the mountains and lakes and then feel so welcomed by the people.”

While the work on her tree project continues, she is branching out to other works of art.

“I just finished this painting of a church,” Palmer said in her second-floor studio and gallery on Central Avenue. “I passed this church. It looked like it was not in use, but it was cared for, like people lovingly took care of it. It was twilight, and with the sunset shadows around the building and trees, the painting was right there in front of me.”

Yet with all this success, Palmer is reluctant to call herself an artist.

“I’m an aspiring artist,” she said. “I never reach the full realization of being an artist. I’m always growing in my art.”

Next she wants to write a book on the Champion Trees and their stories.

“I have kept a journal since I started the project, and I want to create a book that will show the trees and tell their stories,” she said. “In some cases, the trees have been a part of the lives of three generations. They are important to people.”

After that, Palmer said, “I don’t know. I’m not limiting myself. Who knows what I will see and want to do next.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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