Charly Palmer creates stamp for Black Heritage series


Internationally acclaimed artist Charly Palmer, whose work is currently featured at the Oak Bluffs library, is known for his portraits of both notable African Americans and empowering images of Black men, women, and children. 

It’s not surprising, then, that Palmer was selected to provide an image for the latest postage stamp in the Black Heritage series. The artist’s portrait honors Constance Baker Motley (1921–2005), a civil rights pioneer, the first African American woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the first to serve as a federal judge.

“When I have a chance to acknowledge or honor our heroes of our history, I’m going to jump on it,” said Palmer in a recent interview. 

When asked to take on the commission, Palmer was already familiar with this unsung hero of the civil rights movement. “A lot of my subject matter happens to be African Americans,” he says. “She was one of the subjects that I hadn’t painted before.” 

Educator Booker T. Washington was the first African American honored on a U.S. stamp in 1940. Walter DuBois Richards’ portrait of Frederick Douglass on a 25¢ stamp in 1967 was the first time an African American was included in a regular stamp series. In 1978, the Postal Service initiated the Black Heritage stamp series, to recognize the achievements of individual African Americans.

Palmer’s signature style involves providing his subjects with dynamic, stylized settings. For the postage stamp image, Palmer created an arc of lace-like wheel shapes that surround the judge’s head like a halo. He exaggerated a corsage that Motley is wearing in the reference photograph he worked from, setting his subject’s face above a lush arrangement of tropical flowers whose colors are picked up in the background. Faint scratch marks add a nice textural component to the vibrant image. 

“For me, painting a portrait isn’t just capturing the likeness, but the spirit,” says Palmer, who notes that he had the chance to speak to the late judge’s son in preparing for the portrait.

Among his many accomplishments, Palmer created the album cover for John Legend’s 2020 “Bigger Love,” which won the Grammy for Best R&B Album Cover; provided a painting for the cover for Time Magazine’s “America Must Change” issue in 2020, and completed a commission for the 1996 Olympics and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

The exhibit at the Oak Bluffs library encompasses portraits done in a variety of media, including pen and ink, acrylic, and mixed-media work. The standout piece is a painting titled “Through the Storm.” Set at the Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs, a circle of women bathers raise their arms to the sky, where a dramatic, mushroom-shaped cloud is reflected in the water. The women depicted are members of the celebrated Polar Bears, who gather in the ocean on early summer mornings to welcome the day and enjoy a sense of solidarity. 

“It’s a really powerful image,” says the library’s program coordinator, Amy K. Nelson. “It shows a real connection between the earth and the water, and it represents an important component of the Oak Bluffs community.”

Other works on display include colorful mixed-media portraits of Black women and children, a painting of James Baldwin, and a series of small pen-and-ink drawings featuring elaborate design elements. 

The show was curated and hung by Val Francis, owner of the Knowhere Gallery and the Center of Knowhere art and education space in Oak Bluffs. In 2021, Francis hosted a solo show of Parker’s work at her Arts District gallery, and she continues to represent him. After visiting the Vineyard for the first time for that show, Palmer and his wife, Dr. Karida L. Brown, purchased a home here. 

Last year the couple collaborated on a unique project — a collective titled “The New Brownies’ Book: A Love Letter To Black Families,” which features work by 50 black artists and writers. The gorgeous, display-worthy book reimagines the original “Brownie’s Book” — a monthly children’s magazine created by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1920. 

Copies of the “The New Brownies’ Book” are available at the Oak Bluffs library. This coming summer, according to Francis, “the Knowhere Gallery will host significant programing and an exhibition featuring artists from the book.”

Most recently Palmer has added illustrator to his impressive résumé, providing images for several children’s books, as well as a cover for a new DC Comics “Batgirl.”

Palmer sums up his philosophy in a quote found on the homepage of his website: “Art should change the temperature in the room.” 

Head over to the Oak Bluffs library during the month of February and see for yourself.