Art as Activism

By By Adam Fifield

By Adam Fifield

Local photographer Cat Palmer discovered that people are more likely to buy photographs with strong anti-war sentiment than pretty flowers. This encouraged her because she would rather make art that impacts and shocks than appeals to aesthetics.

“I thought people would throw tomatoes at me,” Palmer said about the first display of her politically-charged photographs at the Utah Arts Festival.

“I really hesitated the day before and I brought a ton of flowers and trees photos,” Palmer said, but at the end of the day nature shots were all she had left, as her political photos sold out.

“That gunned me up,” Palmer said, and inspired her to put together even more politically charged exhibits for the future.

Palmer’s current exhibit at Tin Angel Caf (365 W. 400 South) features three sisters posed wearing gas masks with words and phrases drawn onto their skin in black marker. She chose the words from song lyrics and cultural references but also claims inspiration from her dreams. Each aspect of her photos carries a deep, personal significance.

The words seem to bleed out onto the surface of the sisters’ skin, representing a hidden identity — one that resists an identity prescribed by society. In a touching way, the sisters appear to be releasing little intimacies, with phrases like “I believe in me,” and “I am not a Republican, I am not a Democrat, I am Human.” However, they carry an apocalyptic warning, “Black Clouds,” “Regression to Ignorance,” which both symbolically and overtly point toward the photograph’s overall message — that the innocence and beauty of youth is being corroded by war.

“(The three sisters’) dad had just shipped out to Iraq,” said Palmer and admitted that their situation with their family in part inspired her to take on the project in the first place. Their youth and personalities touched her the most.

“They reminded me of flower children, like girls who would be sticking flowers in the ends of rifles,” Palmer said.

The background behind the sisters’ photographs gives insight into Palmer’s creative process, and also into the photographic medium. She approaches her models genuinely interested in their plight and humanity.

This intimacy evokes a special relationship between the three sisters and their photographer — even though they are meticulously posed and choreographed, they don’t merely represent an abstract concept or some product. Their collective resemblance as sisters, their singular and piercing gaze, and a simple hand gesture, a peace sign, all convey more meaning than the words etched onto their youthful skin.

The camera catches all these aspects, and with her lens, Palmer invites the casual observer to participate in the relationship, bringing their own experiences and beliefs into the equation. For Jerry Liedtke, head chef and co-owner of Tin Angel Caf, Palmer’s paintings have drawn debate, some disgust and overall interest from unexpected people.

And that, for Liedtke, is the point in transforming a restaurant space into a gallery for fine art.

One time, Liedtke said, an elderly lady liked a small, anti-war photograph of a child wearing pilot goggles framed on a ragged piece of steel. She eventually bought it, saying it would go perfectly in one of her rooms.

Textures and raw materials are an important recurring industrialized motif in Palmer’s work as a whole, she said.

The frame of the photograph always extends onto the wall and surrounding habitat.

She pastes her photos on large plates of steel gathered from odd places such as recycling yards. One picture is framed with jagged piping and wire.

Inside the photos themselves, Palmer places her models in unconventional settings. For example, military equipment provides the background for a portrait of a child with spiky hair, and a diverse group of women dressed in white, wearing surgical masks, line up at the salt flats.

These tools of conception add up to a common theme: an appreciation for the worn, crumbling and decentralized aspects of society.

As a teenager growing up in Orange County, Palmer first used her camera to try to capture the degenerates and outcasts of society. The subjects who impacted her the most were two homeless punks, Spoon and Squid, living on Hollywood Boulevard.

“They were pretty much always drunk, very funny and very sad,” Palmer said.

According to Palmer, Spoon and Squid were panhandlers and drunks, but they were also orphaned lovers. When Palmer photographed her, Spoon was 19 but had been homeless since the age of 14, when her father went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. Squid, who is 23 in the photographs, had been married, but his wife died and he would not say why or how. He also had a child he had long since lost contact with.

At first, they agreed to be photographed if Palmer gave them money, but they soon became friends.

Palmer graduated from high school and eventually moved to Utah, but she returned home for a visit and learned about Spoon and Squid’s fate. Spoon had walked in on Squid cutting another woman’s hair and stabbed him through the heart with the scissors in a crime of passion. She was awaiting her sentence in jail.

The whole experience, Palmer said, “made me more compassionate, to realize that (homeless people on the street) have this whole story behind them and more than anything not to judge.”

When asked where they see themselves in 10 years, every young punk living on the streets of L.A. answered that they were sure they’d be dead, Palmer said. With the Spoon and Squid saga, Palmer’s camera captured the light and shadows of America’s tragic outsiders.

“Now I’m delving into things,” Palmer said. Her new frontier: to shine light on the atrocities of America’s war on terrorism.

With her creative momentum in full swing, Palmer is currently caught up in, and very excited about, an exhibit in the works that will feature the photography of Utahn Ty Norager, who is serving in Iraq.

“(Norager is) serving in a war he does not believe in,” said Palmer, who bought him a camera to use while he’s in Iraq. With her own photography and framing skills, she’ll incorporate his photographs “to make art pieces.”

The exhibit will be shown at the Utah Arts Festival Gallery beginning Oct. 19 and running through Veterans Day, while Norager is home for a break from duty. Palmer’s husband Blake Palmer, also an artist, will contribute work that commemorates the 14 men from Norager’s unit who have died.

The husband-and-wife duo recently won honors from Salt Lake City Weekly’s “Artys,” with Blake receiving the reader’s choice for “Best Sculptor/Mixed-Media Artist,” and Cat winning “Best Photographer.”

While the Tin Angel exhibit is slated as part of the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll, Palmer will be busy showing her work at the Salt Palace, during “a fundraiser to raise money to help people with developmental disabilities and their housing needs,” she said in an e-mail.

So, with the power of a camera and the breadth of experience, Palmer has succeeded in wedding political and social activism with artistic sublimity.

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