Across Oklahoma, Dr. Bob Palmer and his team of muralists are painting Oklahoma history to life. Meet the man who uses brush and paint to reconnect Oklahoma with its colorful past.
By David Althouse
Successfully igniting artistic creativity in the hearts and minds of his students is just one of the missions of UCO art professor Bob Palmer. His other great charge, and the one for which he is best known, is reconnecting Oklahoma communities with their history and heritage through vividly colorful and breathtaking murals.
One strolls past 505 West Grand in Ponca City and finds the historic 101 Ranch alive and kicking, the doors of the ranch headquarters – the White House – open wide once again for visitors from around the world. Ranch bosses Joe, Zack and George Miller, wearing their big Stetsons, look on proudly as the king of the big cattle ranches breathes life anew. Natives adorned in full traditional regalia stand tall and proud, a rambunctious cowboy fights to stay aboard an equally spirited bronc, trick riders display their riding prowess and daring, buffalo graze, and oil derricks dot the skyline. Modern day passersby are just as enchanted with the spectacle as were the crowned heads of Europe who witnessed the 101 Real Wild West Show back in the day.
Palmer and his team of muralists pulled no punches in painting a mural meticulously indicative of the colossal Wild West posters of earlier times. The dazzling color is there, along with traditional font. Even the poster’s brownish edges show the frays of time. Impressive is the attention to detail, stunning the end result.
For an equally enthralling exhibition of Palmer’s mural magic, take a walk along the west edge of Bricktown on E.K. Gaylord Boulevard in Oklahoma City. Here, Palmer’s dazzling display covers four city blocks. South of Main Street the mural captures several scenes from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! complete with the surrey with the fringe on top, Aunt Eller standing on the front porch yelling “come and get it,” and a hawk making lazy circles in the sky.
From there, the imagery flows into the scene of an Oklahoma frontier town. The town’s one street is lined with a saloon, blacksmith shop, livery and jail. Rounding out the representation are the requisite saloon girls, cowboys, lawmen and loafers standing around the boardwalks. In the background area behind the town stand Redbud trees in full magnificent bloom.
North of the frontier town a line of vintage life-size Santa Fe Railroad passenger cars thunder down the track, compliments of Palmer’s paintbrush. Listen closely, for you might pick up the roar of steel wheels against steel track and the blast of the train’s whistle.
Palmer has left a gargantuan back trail of such history-based imagery across Oklahoma. “We’ve painted over 1,200 murals in Oklahoma alone,” Palmer said. “Someone once told me, ‘If it stays still long enough, you’ll put paint on it.’ I replied, ‘Probably so!’”
When asked if his goal is to have at least one mural in all 77 Oklahoma counties, Palmer said, “We’re at every corner right now. We’ve just got a few gaps in between that remain.”
For as long as he has painted, Palmer said, he has enjoyed “painting large.”
“I gravitated to murals when friends and family would ask me to paint things on their kitchen or bathroom walls,” Palmer said. “So it really kind of started that way.”
Within a couple of years, Palmer began acquiring commercial jobs through word of mouth. While finishing a masters degree in Tennessee, Palmer began painting murals for Opryland. After moving to Oklahoma, he did the same for Frontier City.
“I started taking on bigger projects and soon realized that I needed to hire some people to help me,” Palmer said. “I can’t do these by myself, especially the bigger ones. So I’ve had my own business now for about 14 years.”
To Palmer, bringing Oklahoma history to life is serious business on multiple levels. He appreciates the educational importance of the murals he has painted in towns across Oklahoma, and is dedicated to the proposition that every community deserves great art delivered with vivid color, historical accuracy, and period authenticity.
“I bring my best painters to these towns because they deserve for us to be the best we can be,” Palmer said. “By the time we leave town we’ve become like family. We’ve stayed in their homes, eaten their food, and painted like crazy people. It’s a lot of fun and I really don’t consider it work.”
Palmer says painting murals is like giving away a part of himself.
“These murals are like my children,” Palmer said. “I’ve given you a part of me, and now you need to take care of it. I will probably come back and visit it, and I’ll want to see it in good shape, because I have given you the best I can be at that point in time.”
In some cases, not only is Palmer bringing historical education to town, but also art instruction. Many times, he says, bleachers of students are brought to the mural sites to observe, listen and learn.
“What I have is a God-given gift, and it would be wrong for me not to give it back,” Palmer said. “A lot of what I do is educational, and I love to engage young people in the project. If I can engage them, then they can take ownership of it. I might even have a future muralist in the crowd.”
Palmer emphasizes the education is most often a two-way affair, as he has learned more about Oklahoma history by painting murals than he would ever have learned from reading history books.
“It’s really all about just that – education,” Palmer said. “Oklahoma has an awesome and unique history. It’s definitely about educating people and connecting to the past, as well as learning something myself.”
Palmer is an Oklahoma treasure for his mural work alone, but his contributions to the state do not end there. As an award-winning painting, muralist, and photography professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, Palmer presides over a 14-year legacy of teaching art, fostering creativity, and setting an example of success. His students may leave his midst after graduation, but they never forget the positive and lasting mark he makes in their lives.
One of Palmer’s former students is Heather Kay, Assistant Vice President, Business and Industry Training at Oklahoma State University – Oklahoma City.
“The first professor I had at UCO was Bob Palmer,” Kay said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better start for my college education and career. He has an ease about him that makes you feel like you can accomplish anything. From the start, he helped me as an artist by fostering a sense of creativity that I use in painting and drawing, and he helped instill within me a feeling of confidence that has helped make me who I am today.”
Palmer has succeeded in making a positive impact in the lives of his students while also finding the time to give over 1,200 mural treasures to communities across the state. Many would find either of those endeavors a full-time job.
In 2007, it came as no surprise when the Oklahoma Art Education Association selected Palmer as Art Educator of the Year. The association honored the artist for his service, art advocacy and longevity in the promotion of outstanding quality arts education.
Palmer’s positive influence as a teacher makes him forever remembered by his students. His prolificacy in bringing the state’s history to life with his art makes him Oklahoma’s master muralist and … “art historian.”