“Some days ideas come easier than others. Some days it’s like pulling hen’s teeth.”
– Jim Palmer
This morning was perfect. Sunny, colorful, calm. Other than the pollen, Spring is such a fun season, don’t you think? (Achoo!) Wrinkled brown seeds turn into rainbows in the dirt, and birdsong is carried on the breeze. Clouds with cartoon edges stretch toward each other with their soft, white wings, and fat, fuzzy bees zip around with yellow spice on their feet.
(My hydrangea bush yawns and stretches out its leaves. Berries warmed by the sun, as pretty as they are sweet.)
And porch time, oh my goodness, what a gift to swing out there in Spring. The light is especially magical when the sun has set but isn’t fully swallowed up yet. Inside, life goes on with my Palmer people. They’re such a gracious bunch, and I don’t know what I did to deserve them, but I’m so thankful that they are mine.
(Granpè Jim and Steevenson, tongues out, left hands hard at work.)
That’s Kevin’s dad in the photo above. He’s got silver in his hair and gold in his heart. His name is James, but most folks call him Jim. Steevenson calls him Granpè, so the rest of us have started to call him that too. He was the youngest of two sons. In his youth, he worked hard and played football. As a young adult, he served his country and then took a job at a bank in downtown Dallas. And he drew. He always drew. In 1968, he met and fell in love with Katie, and in the early 70s, he, too, was blessed with two boys. Kerry in 1971 and Kevin three years later. Both “K” names because Jim was absolutely certain there wasn’t a more beautiful way to start a word.
He gets around on a scooter now, but before the discs in his back and neck started to give him trouble, he had a long and busy career with the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper. He was their political cartoonist, and you could find his drawings in the paper six days a week. Sometimes, after a long, mind-bending week at work, he would pack up the family and drive out to the country to visit Katie’s mom, Mama Gustie. Family members who lived nearby would get wind and trickle in, and Mama Gustie would fill them all up with her favorites: fried chicken, squash casserole, no less than three different bean dishes, and potato salad, all made from scratch, of course. Seconds weren’t optional and no one was allowed to leave the table before finishing a fluffy hunk of her homemade lemon icebox pie.
One weekend while they were visiting, Jim surprised the boys with easels he had secretly propped up on Mama Gustie’s big back porch. The three of them stood side-by-side, for hours, dragging thick, colorful oils across their canvases. Kevin was probably eight years old at the time, but it’s still one of his favorite clear glimpses into the past.
And when they weren’t creating works of art together, Jim incorporated his boys and his beloved into his art at work. While the rest of the city was scanning his cartoons to see what each day’s drawing had to say, Katie, Kerry and Kevin were on a mission to find a different message in his work. Squinting their eyes and scrunching their noses to see where Jim had hidden their secret symbols that day. A sunshine for Katie and two little stars for the boys. Do you see them in the picture below?
They’re harder to find in these next two:
(Answers: Pic #1: button on left boy’s wrist, pin on right boys hat; Pic #2: button on man’s wrist, awning over schoolhouse door; Pic #3: pin on taller man’s hat, top edge of rowboat)
The Montgomery Advertiser published a book full of his work in December of 1992. I looked up the ISBN number today and it says there aren’t any more books available. (Boo!) Here’s an excerpt:
Jim Palmer contends, “You don’t have to be left-handed to be a cartoonist, but it helps to be crazy.” He’s been crazy about cartooning from an early age. After graduating from high school in Hawkins, Texas he attended Dallas Art Institute in 1955 and 1956, and later stretched his banking lunch hours to hang around with the Dallas Morning News cartoonists, in hopes of getting a job in the field.
“If I had my druthers, I’d be a sports cartoonist,” Palmer says, but the heyday of the sports cartoons passed before he got a full-time drawing job, so he wound up drawing political footballs, sometimes involving pork-barrel politics, instead of pigskins.
In 1959-1961 he was in the Army, stationed in the San Fransisco Bay area as a dog handler, “and I’ve got the scars to prove it.”
He spent 11 years in banking, all the while harboring the urge to puncture pomposity and ridicule asininity. Having continued his habit of visiting working cartoonists and drawing sports cartoons for weeklies in Texas, he sent out a brochure to “everybody in Editor & Publisher’s yearbook ….. My family thought I was crazy.”
The fateful phone call came from Harold Martin, then editor of The Montgomery Advertiser, offering a job with the afternoon newspaper.
Palmer says he took a $100-a-month pay cut, but “I would have come for free. If they’d just let me publish my cartoons, I’d have worked in a grocery store.”
Part of his credo is something the Alabama Journal’s Ray Jenkins told him early in his career: “A cartoon is an overstatement.” In lieu of a Greek chorus, Palmer has incorporated “the little man” into some of his cartoons since 1969. In that era, Palmer explains, most political cartoons had captions at the top and bottom, but an editor often tampered with them. To keep his sentiments intact, Palmer made them emanate from the mouth of “the little man”.
His approach to cartooning, as the examples in this book illustrate, is “humor with a little impact thrown in for emphasis…If I can’t do that, I might as well be back in the bank filing checks.”
To him, the hardest part of the job is “just keeping up with what’s going on. Then we zero in on the topics for the cartoons — who we want to get mad at that day… Some days the ideas come easier than others. Some days it’s like pulling hen’s teeth.”
My father-in-law’s back troubles may have limited his ability to walk and use his right hand, but you’ll never meet a more loving, unassuming, talented, left-handed man. These days, he mostly draws cartoon animals and angels. He pulls up to his drawing desk every morning after breakfast and he’s got stacks and stacks of colorful drawings to prove it.
I’m sure he draws because it feels harder not to pour pictures out, but his artwork will always look like so much more than pencil on paper to me. I see a quiet confidence, and what can happen when a person like that throws open the windows of their soul to the sun. I see the gathering of courage and the creativity of someone who sent brochures out to everyone.
Hope you are well, friend…wherever in the world this story finds you today!