First published: Spring 2009
Stephen Palmer produced a massive record of Christian faith in the guise of roughly 400 known and recently rediscovered mixed media paintings and drawings on paper. As private devotional art, the works announce the layered complexity and subversive potential of religious imagery. As artifacts uncovered, they speak about the Cold War era in America. They collectively hold clues to reconstructing the psychology and motivations of an individual.
Although Palmer’s death certificate lists New York State as his birthplace, he was in fact born in Illinois, in 1882. By 1910 he was living in Eau Claire, Wisconsin with his mother and his brother, Fred, who was five years his senior. When Palmer turned in a World War I draft card in 1918, he was 36 years old and was living in Nebraska with his uncle, whom he listed as his nearest kin, his mother and brother having both died by then. He was never called up to fight. In Nebraska, he worked as a self-described ‘horse packer’.
By 1920 he was back in Wisconsin, and until at least 1930 he worked in the woods as a teamster for the paper and pulp industry while living as a single lodger in a men’s house. Palmer died in a Minnesota hospital three days after suffering a stroke in the autumn of 1965. He was buried in a single plot at the Catholic Calvary Cemetery in Mankato.
Based on the French-Canadian heritage of both of his parents, it is probable that Palmer was exposed to Roman Catholicism in his youth. He sustained but complicated his connection to the Catholic Church by affiliation with fringe home-based worship groups and self-proclaimed visionaries. These break-off sects of what might be called religious fanatics provided a social network for him, and he drew a small circle of the faithful to listen to his own visions and prophecies. His paintings, like his practices, are rooted in Catholicism but take unsanctioned deviations.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #66