Last Saturday afternoon, the parking lot of the Chilmark Library was full — uncharacteristic for this time of year. The reason? Some 50 people had come to pay homage to a local artist whose name is probably unfamiliar to most Vineyarders. But Joe Palermo is hardly a novice. In fact he’s been painting for over three quarters of a century and, at 91, he continues to be, arguably, one of the most prolific artists on the Island.
Friends and fans who came on Saturday to support the outgoing nonagenarian had an opportunity to view a large sampling of his watercolor work, which will be on display through the end of the month. This is Mr. Palermo’s first solo show on the Island, although a selection of his work hung until recently at the Wheel Happy bike shop in Edgartown. A few years back Mr. Palermo also had a show in Port Jefferson, Long Island.
Mr. Palermo relocated to the Vineyard three years ago. He lives with his son daughter-in-law in Edgartown where he has a makeshift studio. Born in Canada, Mr. Palermo has lived in New Jersey and Florida. After starting out his working life as a butcher, he eventually owned and operated a motel and then a restaurant. Mr. Palermo served in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, earning a Bronze Star.
Throughout a life of various career and location changes, one thing has remained a constant: Mr. Palermo has always found the time to paint. Self-taught, the talented artist started out executing oil paintings, but he eventually switched to watercolors, his medium of choice for the past 30 years or so. Up until a few years ago, Mr. Palermo created a painting a day.
On display at the library are 30 small works, a tiny percentage of Mr. Palermo’s lifetime output. The themes are varied. There are a number of Vineyard scenes — boats, lighthouses, seascapes. And there are also works that reflect some of the places he has visited throughout his life. Italy is the setting for some wonderfully lit village scenes. There is also a painting of a covered bridge and a serene lake scene with cliffs.
Mr. Palermo’s work displays a skilled use of color and blending. In some cases, using just well placed smudges of color he manages to achieve an almost photographic effect when viewed from a distance. The aforementioned lake scene and a painting of a motorboat speeding along with ocean spray preceding it are cases in point. Other scenes, like two depictions of a wooded bay with sailboats in the distance, have more of an impressionistic feel.
Elise Thomas has known Mr. Palermo for a year and a half. She regularly drives him around the Island to scenic locations so that he can snap photos to paint from. His work reflects the variety of the Vineyard landscape. There’s a charming depiction of a classic colonial home in Edgartown, a couple of views of Menemsha Harbor, and a marvelous close up of a crew working the rigging on a speeding sailboat.
Ms. Thomas and Mr. Palermo have further bonded over a shared love of cooking. She notes that the two prepare some of the artist’s favorite Italian dishes together, even making their own pasta. Ms. Thomas says that Mr. Palermo manages to replicate his mother’s recipes by relying on taste and smell alone.
The energetic 91-year-old also enjoys watching movies. Linda Morgan of Vineyard Nursing Association has worked with Mr. Palermo for three years. She says that the two of them have formed a movie club. “His mind’s always going: It never stops,” she says. “He’s always trying to figure out different ways to do things.”
Ms. Thomas makes a similar observation: “He’s always thinking about what he’s working on, what he’s going to work on next, or a new way to paint something.”
Among members of Mr. Palermo’s fan club who attended the opening was Sandy Fisher. “He hasn’t lost his spark,” she said, “I think that’s awesome. He paints every day.”
Mr. Palermo was visibly enjoying the attention and the opportunity to show his work to the public. He was especially pleased when celebrated artist Ray Ellis stopped by and congratulated him on his show. Mr. Ellis is another 91-year-old Vineyarder who paints every day.
“I’m a great admirer of Ray Ellis,” said Mr. Palermo. “I was honored to have him come to the show.”
Mr. Palermo’s art can be seen at the Chilmark Library during regular hours through January. Call 508-645-3360 for hours and more information.