Lowcountry still taking Palmer's funny birds under its wing

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 27, 2014 

Walter Palmer brushes up one of his bird sculptures when the Island School Council for the Arts staged a "Palmer Family Tribute" during the 2010 Evening of the Arts fundraising auction.


Walter Palmer and the Lowcountry are still birds of a feather.

After 14 years living on an island in Florida, where his electricity came from the sun and water from the rain, the bearded sculptor is back.

Walter and Karen Palmer are living in Jasper County, and he's still creating the whimsical birds that came to life here in 1970.

Palmer was one of those early signs that Hilton Head Island was not going to be a paint-by-number place when it started to be filled in by development.

His brother, Jim Palmer, was already producing meticulously detailed oils and watercolors of Lowcountry scenes when Walter graduated from the Atlanta School of Art and joined him. Their sister Lynn ran The Red Piano art gallery near the ocean gate to Sea Pines, and helped start the famous weekly "Round Table" discussions among a small cast of artists trying to figure out the tide-like pull to art, and the island.

Walter Palmer's birds reflect an era when we didn't take ourselves so seriously.

They come from a time when advertising executive Tim Doughtie could form a "band" called the Phart-O-Phonics, "a classical gas wind ensemble."

They started soaring in the days that a swing-span bridge to Hilton Head could stop all incoming traffic long enough for people to unplug, listen to the wind, maybe check out the cooler in the bed of a pickup.

Palmer's birds are supposed to make you laugh. They look like a real bird, maybe an eagle-billed green egret, but they're not. They are characters who dance in fountains, flop in beach chairs, or sit and gossip. One bends a putter over its head in a piece called, "I Love This Game."

For years, a Walter Palmer bird was usually the second rainmaker to a Joe Bowler painting during the annual Evening of the Arts auction to raise money for arts education in local schools.

The antics of the birds mimic the people who flock to their haunts. The birds have for decades greeted guests at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa. Others have migrated to the Federal Reserve Bank in Charlotte, Louie's Backyard restaurant in Key West, and the Cape Cod National Golf Club.

Palmer is about to finish a new outdoor classroom at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn. He's working with his sons, Wally and Kevin, and grandsons Justin and Jared to create seating designed to look like waves, a wall featuring a mosaic map of Hilton Head, and, of course, a couple of birds lounging atop the wall. They're called "Bird's Eye View."

Walter Palmer has come back to the place that has nurtured a flock of artists named Palmer, including Karen Palmer and Jim and Barbara Palmer's children, Addison and Elise.

It's a place that continues to reward Walter Palmer's funny twist on life.

"Hilton Head is a wonderful melting pot of interesting people," he said. "This would not have worked in many places."

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