The Artist and his Works: A review essay by Richard Warch

The Artist

Connoisseurs of the sculptural creations of John Palmquist may plausibly assume that he has been inspired by California artist Woods Davy. That would be a reasonable conjecture, but in fact, compared to Palmquist, Davy is a relative novice as far as rock art is concerned. It is true that Davy's art appeared on the market before Palmquist's, but the more salient point is that Palmquist has spent years-indeed, has spent decades almost too numerous to mention-preparing to create the sculptural forms for which he has just recently gained such wide notoriety. He is no -- if readers will pardon the pun -- Johnny-Come-Lately when it comes to working with rocks.

Palmquist, the son of a Lutheran pastor, grew up with a deep and abiding appreciation for the wonders of creation. As a youth, growing up in Marquette (the Queen City of the North) along the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan's noted -- and at times ridiculed -- Upper Peninsula (hereafter, "da UP"), Palmquist spent countless hours playing with rocks. What first began as a childish preoccupation with seeing how far he could skip stones across the lake (a pastime that led to one of his first "scientific" discoveries: i.e., spherical rocks did not skip as easily as flat ones) developed into a more profound appreciation for their varied shapes and compositions. As a youngster -- albeit a precocious youngster -- he did not yet know the proper designations or geological origins of the rocks he found along the rocky coast of Superior, but in time he would come to know those designations and many other pieces of geological wisdom, which, if truth be told, he will share with (and/or inflict on) friends and traveling companions at the drop of the proverbial hat (in this particular instance, a Tilley hat, about which Palmquist has also been known to wax rhapsodic for interminable periods of time, though his riffs on golf make his geological and Tilley hat discourses seem like reticence).

Whereas Davy appears to work with rocks that are merely big and round, Palmquist selects the materials for his sculptures with greater care and sensitivity. And whereas Davy apparently wants to create works of art only suitable for patrons with enormous interior spaces or large tracts of open lawn (to say nothing of deep pockets), Palmquist seeks to produce sculptural forms on a more intimate scale. His sculptures, therefore, while commanding prices commensurate with the creative energy and exemplary talent he brings to each piece, are still affordable when compared to the exorbitant prices that Davy has the audacity to ask, and can thus find a place in the confines of the homes and yards of collectors of more modest means.

While Davy could not tell you -- and, as best one can tell, does not care -- if a particular rock is quartz, mica, or feldspar, cannot produce even a kindergarten interpretation of plate tectonics, and is clueless when it comes to differentiating igneous and sedimentary rocks, Palmquist is the polar opposite. A graduate of Augustana College (with perhaps the most beautiful campus in America, one that invites and indeed provokes awe and reverence for the natural world), and a noted PUG (about which he will also regale with great enthusiasm), Palmquist went on to obtain a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Iowa, taught for twenty-eight years at Lawrence, and has been elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. He thus possesses an expertise that Davy (and other artists using stone as a medium) cannot match. Palmquist does not just pick any old rock for his art. He selects only rocks about which he can lecture interminably, so that collectors of his art also become, perforce, recipients of geological instruction.

Though he has traveled extensively, at home and abroad, on his yearly sabbaticals from Lawrence University and has thus seen and collected geological specimens from around the world, Palmquist has most frequently chosen material from his beloved UP to use in his work. As he himself has written, these stones are derived from the Precambrian rocks of Ontario and the native Michigan bedrock and the shapes they develop come from original fractures. Most significantly for how they are placed and juxtaposed in Palmquist's work, the stones have been rounded during their varied histories: by sculpting in flowing water, by glacial transport, and lastly by the repeated pounding of the surf along the shores of da UP. Needless to say, the rocks so transformed over millennia offer a rich array of forms and types, but Palmquist only selects specimens that are beautiful objects in themselves, and have a shape, texture, fabric, and especially color that make them pleasing to the eye. These variations in color and patterns of veins are central features that Palmquist seeks when he is selecting and collecting the rocks, but come into play most particularly during his imaginative and sensitive positioning of the stones in each sculpture.

In assembling the stones, Palmquist strives for simplicity and balance to achieve a result that transcends the materials, resulting in a Zen-like quality developed from the arrangements, which encourage contemplation and reflection. His work is abstract yet organic, revealing a tension and precariousness in the finished product that suggests a fluid balancing act between and among the stones themselves. While most of Palmquist's works are "fixed" once assembled, the artist has also created a few works that permit viewers to manipulate the rocks into different configurations (see, for example, Zen Stack II), providing an interactive experience that enables the viewer to "participate" in creating and recreating the piece into various forms.

The Sculptures

Although John Palmquist's oeuvre is not extensive, the few completed sculptures are of exceptionally high quality and, individually and collectively, forecast what collectors, art dealers, galleries, and museums may anticipate as this artist continues to produce stone sculptures of unparalleled distinction. For now, with a brief commentary accompanying each, and quoting from the artist on occasion, here are the titles of his works to date:

Opus One
One does not need to know Latin to figure out that Opus One is Palmquist's first work, or at least the first work he is prepared to acknowledge publicly. In a preview of the geological comments he will offer in describing some of his later pieces, he simply declares here "Madison mylonite forms the base."

A Touch of the Desert

Whereas Palmquist favors rocks gathered from the shores of Lake Gitche Gumee, in this work he has used samples from a somewhat more arid climate. The contrast with the Ontario stones is stark, but the artistic sensibility one finds expressed in this piece echoes that exemplified in Palmquist's other sculptures.

Meteor Impact at the Apex

At first glance, this work is reminiscent of other Palmquists. But there is a difference. The reference to "Meteor Impact at the Apex" points the viewer to the top rock, which, upon handling, will prove to be movable, unlike the fixed position of the supporting stones. The import of this feature is not immediately obvious, but the artist has volunteered to provide explanations (note the plural) to anyone wishing to inquire.


Shall We Dance?

This playful work was originally entitled Rocks Communicating, described by the artist as "two integrated works." Viewers will surely agree that Shall We Dance is a far more whimsical and suggestive title. Each of the sculptures indeed seems to be reaching out toward the other, though -- in keeping with the artist's Zen sensibilities -- are doing so as graceful prelude to a slow waltz, not a flamenco.

Gray Phase

The word "Gray" is self-explanatory, referring not to age, per se, but to the coloration of the stones used in the sculpture. "Phase," however, is somewhat less obvious. Does this mean that the rock will transmogrify into some other-presumably darker and more bizarre-color and shape? If this transformation is to take place in geological time, one can assume that this piece will remain in its current "gray phase" for many years to come.

Zen Stack

This is one of the interactive sculptures cited above. The graceful gyrations of the stones invite the kind of meditative quietude and self-contemplation characterized by Zen Buddhism. In viewing this work, one can almost hear one hand clapping.

Zen Stack II [Private Collection]
In this work, Palmquist has used dolomite stones from the site of the collector to form a piece that can be rearranged to suit the mood of the moment. While the original work consisted solely of small, flat dolomite slabs, the artist consented to permit the owner to introduce basalt samples to form the top of the sculpture. There are several of these, along with the original capstones, so the work can be configured in multiple ways.

Serendipity I

Here the title suggests the playfulness that Palmquist brings to his work. This sculpture, the fourth one that the artist completed, is, alas, broken. Said breakage was caused by the uninvited attempt by Carol Palmquist (see below) to move the piece to a location that struck her as more suitable. Indeed!

Serendipity II (Arizona-flavored Ontario)

Like its predecessor, Serendipity II is titled in such a way that leads the viewer to think of its assemblage as somewhat random. Still, one puzzles at the term "Arizona-flavored"; is Palmquist here referencing Arizona Ice Tea? And if so, what does that have to do with a Canadian province? We will have to await further comment from the artist to satisfy this curiosity.

Breath of Life
This is a work that specifically expresses the artist's background as a geologist. He describes it this way: "The base is a rock whose origin is influenced by cyanobacteria-primitive organisms whose photosynthetic activity effected changes in the atmosphere. Enriching the atmosphere in oxygen, they set the stage for the sedimentation of the banded iron formation, resting on the differentially eroded base, and ultimately supplied enough oxygen for aerobic animals to evolve." If that prose doesn't make your heart sing, well, too bad for you. While Palmquist's geological pedigree is unexceptionable and while he draws on his expertise in creating his work, his use of such phrases as "cyanobacteria-primitive organisms" and "photosynthetic activity" is simply showing off; here the artist seems to be attempting to provide a level of gravitas to this sculpture that it might not deserve. Still, one should not quibble. Better the overwrought prose of the geological scientist than the simpleminded titles of the inarticulate artist. At least the viewer can come away from looking at and reading about Breath of Life feeling he or she has just taken an upper-level geology course.

Smaller Works

In addition to the sculptures listed above, Palmquist has also completed several "smaller works" (this is his term: the sculptures are not exactly "large works," but artistic license being what it is, one must accept Palmquist's designation of the three works listed below as "smaller"). These are:

Galena and sphalerite folds from the Mount Isa Mine, Queensland Australia
This is another work wherein Palmquist's professional identity as a geologist clearly informed the title, which reveals the nature and origin of the material and nothing about the work of art. Going on the title alone -- absent a visual reference -- the piece requires a Ph.D. to understand.

Phallic Metronome
Reading this title, one is prompted to ask, "What was he thinking?" Clearly, one knows what he was thinking, about which no more should be said.

Crunched on Clasts
The title here is somewhat redundant, as a clast is itself a rock fragment resulting from the breakdown of larger rocks. In other words, a clast is the product of another rock being crunched. Get it?

Concluding Words

Prospective clients and collectors wishing to hear other views of Palmquist's work are invited to contact his wife Carol. A fellow Lutheran and an Augustana alumna (although not a PUG), she is perhaps his most knowledgeable critic, though she prefers to employ a more earthy language when speaking of his sculptures. She does, however, offer her suggestions (not always diplomatically) about how an individual sculpture should be positioned in both interior and exterior spaces, though on a few occasions her attempts to reposition a work to suit her aesthetic has resulted in breakage (see Serendipity I, above). Palmquist, it should be noted here, possesses a marvelous artistic sensibility, but is not afflicted with the notorious artistic temperament. He is cool, calm, and collected under all sorts of duress (see Serendipity I, above), and rarely expresses anger, although it should be noted that on some few occasions -- as, for example, when he hits a duck hook when he was playing for a high fade -- he is he likely to exclaim his favorite expletive: "Oh schist!"

Until the "Stones in the Mudd" exhibit and the web page that accompanies it, the only way that the curious from beyond Appleton could see examples of Palmquist's work was to subscribe to Kodak's Ofoto website, where he has posted digital images of the sculptures. Given the fame (and, he hopes, fortune) that will surely result from the present exhibition, Palmquist will soon be promoting his own web page where individuals and institutions may view the sculptures and place orders. Purchasers wishing to engage Carol Palmquist to oversee the installation of their sculptures must make arrangements with her separately.

Richard Warch

December 2, 2005
Ellison Bay, Wisconsin