Pat Palermo is a New York-based artist who has been an active participant in the art world while maintaining an identity as a cartoonist. This doesn't seem like such a strange thing now, as more and more people are getting MFAs in comics. But I come from a generation whose art professors looked down their noses at such ambitions. There was almost no crossover between art and comics. It seems crazy now, but that’s how it was.
But Palermo, who received his MFA from Bard in 2005, is just young enough to be on the side of grudging acceptance of the mixing of these two previously distinct worlds. His comics work has paralleled his other work and the two are mutually informed by one another. His first published comic was Cut Flowers, self-published with a Xeric Grant in 2005. It was a mostly realistic slice of life about an artist and his studio life, typical of a time when cartoonists still felt the need to separate themselves from the dominate genre, superhero comics, by doing comics that dealt with quotidian reality. It is not obviously autobiographical, but it has the feel of literary fiction, like a New Yorker story. His highly skilled drawing was a little like a combination of Adrian Tomine and Frank Robbins.
He has continued drawing in that style with his current series, LIVE/WORK, the first issue of which was published in 2012. He has been working on issue two ever since. LIVE/WORK is set in the New York art world that is largely invisible—amongst the art handlers and installers, artists scraping by taking on these art-adjacent jobs while trying to get it together to do their own projects or co-op galleries. And Palermo did cofound a gallery, Soloway, in 2012. So there is an element of draw-what-you-know in LIVE/WORK.
But for the past year, Palermo has been in Galveston, Texas, doing a year-long residency at the Galveston Artist Residency. The residency, which comes with an apartment and a large studio, has freed him up to do work in addition to continuing LIVE/WORK. Palermo gave himself a challenge: to draw and post a page of comics every day. That’s the kind of project you would expect to last a month or so before the artist gets tired of the grind. But Palermo has managed to do it every day since August 2016.
The pages are drawn in a small sketchbook in pencil, scanned, and published online. They have an immediacy that his more considered comics work lacks. He makes the most of his Brooklyn fish-out-of-water perspective, and the work paints a very particular portrait of the weirdness that is Galveston. But because it was also an eventful period in our county’s history, the world of politics takes on a great deal of importance as the daily comics diary progresses. Trump is elected and Palermo’s relates his crushing despair, anger, and his subsequent activism, surprisingly—considering his lack of local roots—in the realm of local politics, both municipal and state-level. That said, the strip continued to have a lot of autobiographical material, especially about Palermo’s encounters with Galveston’s barflies.
Palermo’s accomplishes all of this in pages dense with information. He draws them small and in pencil—the sketchbook pages are 7 by 5 ½ inches—and usually every square inch is packed with information, visual or textual. Pencil drawing gives the work a contingent feel and the allows for a wide variation in tones. It also looks very good as-is. Therefore, I was slightly disappointed that he decided to publish selections of his daily diary comic inked. Fortunately, the penciled pages still exist -- he inked photocopies on a light table. The inked strips are not terribly different from the penciled strips, just tightened up a little. They have less tonal range, warmth and immediacy than the pencil-only work.
For the annual residents’ exhibit at Galveston Artist Residency, Palermo published three 5.5 x 8.5 inch pamphlets covering the first three quarters in Galveston. (There will be a fourth volume about the last three months of his residency.) These can be purchased on his website. Since I have been reading these strips every day as they appear on Palermo’s website, I was familiar with all the material in them already. And he left a lot out. The three pamphlets, titled SEP OCT NOV, DEC JAN FEB and MAR APR MAY respectively, focus on Galveston-based material, whether autobiographical, political, or historical.
There is a long, amusing section on Robert Durst in MAR APR MAY. Durst was the bizarre murderer who dropped out of sight in 2000 (after allegedly murdering his wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst) by moving to Galveston. Durst took a female identity and moved into a cheap apartment, where he became acquainted with local crank, Morris Black. He ended up killing and dismembering Black. (He got off by claiming self-defense and by having the best criminal defense lawyer in Houston represent him.) His story intersects Palermo’s because Durst took drag lessons from local drag performer Ci Ci Rider (aka C.C. Rider), and who, in DEC JAN FEB, the artist befriended and persuaded to MC “The Festival of the Beautiful,” a piece of counter-programming against Galveston’s big, highly commercial Mardi Gras parade. It’s a small island (population of just over 50,000).
But, missing are strips like a regularly occurring feature where Palermo took drawing requests, most of which were quite bizarre and humorous, made all the more so by Palermo's literal interpretations. In February and March, Palermo spent a couple of weeks drawing an hallucinatory adaptation of Formulary for a New Urbanism by Ivan Chtcheglov, an obscure text from 1953 that influenced the Situationists. He also occasionally recreated mainstream comics covers he had presumably read as a kid. And he drew a series of portraits “congratulating” the worst of our political leaders.
After the end of his residency, Palermo will return to Brooklyn and finish up LIVE/WORK. He’ll probably have to return to being a working stiff to support his art habit, and I assume will not have time to do a daily comics page anymore. (He drew a strip about his anxiety about this in April.) That’s the beautiful thing about this residency and any good residency—it gives an artist the time, space and resources necessary to do something they might otherwise never have done. Pat Palermo's Galveston Drawing Diary is a marvelous comic made possible by an amazing institution: the Galveston Artists Residency.