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The Great Escapist

John Ross Palmer aims to destroy the stereotype of the struggling artist.

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John Ross Palmer is busily rearranging his gallery while his husband, Ryan Lindsay, and I admire his latest work.

“You can let the art speak for itself when you’re dead,” Palmer says. “When you’re a living artist, you have to do more!”  

A native Houstonian, Palmer doesn’t take for granted the success he’s built during his 20-year professional career. The 44-year-old has no formal training and started with only the small amount of cash his mother gave him as he ventured into adulthood. 

“You can let the art speak for itself when you’re dead. When you’re a living artist, you have to do more.”

John Ross Palmer

“My mom gave me $500, and she told me I could use it to enroll in community college or buy a sofa. I bought a sofa with it, because I had nothing!” Palmer says.

The artist’s speech is peppered with exclamations. It brings a sense of excitement to whatever the subject may be: his art, his career, or even the omelet Lindsay prepared for us that morning. 

The 40-year-old Lindsay complements Palmer well. His calming demeanor and warm South Carolina accent balances Palmer’s enthusiasm. The couple has been married for 10 years, but “together for 16 years as of tomorrow,” Lindsay reminds Palmer. 

Lindsay, an accomplished attorney, left his law practice to become a business partner with his husband in 2009. It was good timing for their Heights gallery, which they also call home, because that’s when Palmer was formulating the Escapist Mentorship Program, now approaching its 10th year.

The Escapist Program

The Escapist program was founded as a way to help a small group of motivated local creatives destroy the stereotype of the struggling artist. It’s the mission of Palmer’s art movement: escapism. 

The program has mentored 37 artists from around the globe. The current class of four includes Nabarupa Bhattacharjee, who also serves as the official photographer for Palmer as part of her study. She lives in The Chrysalis, a gallery and studio space for those accepted into the program. From 2013 to 2014, Palmer and Lindsay constructed the space adjacent to their home, in furtherance of the escapist mission.

Every artist mentored by Palmer benefits from the program free of charge. They have access to Palmer, Lindsay, and their working space 24 hours a day. Lindsay serves as executive director of Art Launch, the nonprofit that supports the program. Palmer gives guidance on everything from art technique to how to build and maintain a client list. It’s not just an art program; it’s akin to a mini-master’s degree in the art business.

His Chosen Family

Palmer recalls the night of his first show on February 19, 1998, at JR’s Bar & Grill, where he worked as a dancer (he was Mr. Gay Houston 1999). 

“I had 10 paintings for that show,” Palmer says. “I loaded the last painting into my truck bed, and the canvas was thin so the wind kept catching it. I thought, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter if it blows out because it is the only abstract I have.’ When I got it to the bar, it was the first painting I sold.”

The show came about through his connections at JR’s. Palmer credits his friend, Jim McDermaid, and bar owner Charles Armstrong with creating a chosen family for him that helped support his early career. Palmer also counted on his co-workers to help him sell his art at local festivals. It was this support, specifically from the LGBTQ community, that created the environment in which Palmer found his voice. That’s why Palmer feels it is vitally important to pay that kindness forward in the Escapist Mentorship Program. And you can hear this philosophy trickle down to former escapists when they talk about the program. 

“The program was a huge catalyst for building confidence and stretching my perceptions and beliefs about what I could do artistically as a self-supporting artist,” says Ryan Fugate, who completed the program in 2010. “It challenged my comfort zones and self-limiting boundaries. A few simple but profound principles that I took away: perseverance, always show up, and don’t paint over older paintings.” While the program is not geared specifically toward the LGBTQ community, many escapists over the last decade have identified as queer, including Fugate, Edgar Medina, Sonya Cuellar, Zak Vasquez, William H. Miller, Lan Norwood, Hugo Perez, and Stephanie Gonzalez. 

“Everything is better when there is a sense of community,” says Gonzalez, a Mexican artist who was also named Escapist of the Year in 2015. “Sure, there is competition within the art world, but you get what you put out there and it’s important to put out those vibes of support and encouragement.” 

Outside the Box

As much as escapism may be about ending the stereotype of the struggling artist, it is also about developing community support for artists over the long term. It’s a natural evolution, given Palmer’s own career path. However, traditionalists in the art community find Palmer’s approach unorthodox compared to other galleries.“When you come visit us in our gallery, we want you to have a VIP
experience,” Lindsay explains. “We have champagne, Sinatra playing, and little touches that make it special. That’s what you have to do. We get some criticism for that from the art establishment because we don’t have a silent room with a little cheese plate. We are here to sell art, so that’s what we do. We sell the art.” 

On the day I visited, the main gallery was showcasing a gigantic tetraptych painted in Palmer’s signature abstract style. On an opposing wall, the name of an overseas client who had visited the gallery the night before was spelled out in ceramic tiles made by Palmer, who works in various media. 

“Come here, I want to show you this!” Palmer says, pulling me over to a tablecloth embroidered with his initials. Although it was clearly evident, Palmer enthusiastically pointed out, “I’m doing embroidery now!”

His joy is infectious, and he is constantly thinking and creating. During our interview, he took several photographs of me. When I later received one of the photos via text message, I thought, “Wow, I just got a free John Ross Palmer original.”

For more, visit JohnPalmerArt.com.  

This article appears in the October 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Ryan Leach

Ryan Leach is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Follow him on Medium at www.medium.com/@ryan_leach.
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