Visual art, basketball, and video games may not seem like the most obvious pairing. But for Atlanta-based artist Charly Palmer, they go together like gin and tonic. "They all are spaces driven by excitement and emotion,” the artist, age sixty-one, tells the Red Bulletin during a Zoom interview.
Palmer is talking about this synergy because he was chosen to design the cover of NBA 2K22, the forthcoming installment of the popular NBA 2K videogame series. This edition celebrates the 75th anniversary of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the growing global footprint of basketball, which is broadcasted in over 200 countries around the world.
Palmer’s career has skyrocketed in the last five years, but he’s not new to the game. No stranger to art and sports crossovers, Palmer was commissioned to design two Olympic posters, first for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia and then for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. In 2017, he painted portraits of running back John Brockington and linebacker Ray Nitschke for the new Green Bay Packers football stadium.
Before pivoting to practicing fine art full-time, Palmer worked as a graphic designer and illustrator for over two decades. He painted the album cover for singer John Legend and has illustrated multiple children’s books. Last year, his painting, In her Eyes, graced the cover of Time Magazine's, "America Must Change" issue amidst the racial uprisings that swept the United States and world. Much of his work celebrates Black ancestry, excellence, and beauty—anchored by portraiture, bold color, and florals.
I love when people trust me enough to just let me do what I do.
As a fan of sports illustration, Palmer said painting the 2K cover was a dream job. The artwork features basketball icons across generations, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki, one of the most successful international players in league history. The base layer of the composition evokes an Abstract Expressionist vibe, with a landscape of vibrant hues of red and blue, pronounced brush strokes, and drips of paint. The players are energized and athletic on the canvas, paralleling their energy on the court.
Here, Palmer discusses his inspiration for the 2K cover, mentoring the younger generation, and why artists and athletes can both be effective changemakers in society.
You've been practicing art for such a long time, first as a graphic designer and now as a contemporary artist. What continues to motivate you to create work?
I just love the process. The thing is, as an artist, it’s easy to be driven by ego. We start from a blank canvas and end with something completed and it’s easy to believe that it's all about us. But when you understand that you're from a higher source, then it becomes a fun journey of curiosity. I enjoy the curiosity of, "I wonder what this is going to look like." I am so loaded with ideas. I'm afraid not to finish them before I'm gone, so I'm constantly working.
There's a strong storyline throughout your work. It's very colorful. You pull from pop culture and social movements like civil rights. What do you want viewers to take away from your work?
The one thing I'm always going to focus on is beauty. I saw a guy today and I just loved his face. I love Black children's faces. So I ask myself, how can I glorify that?
Flowers are also an ongoing theme for the last few years. It was originally motivated, but my mom’s passing and honoring her, because flowers can be a celebration of life, death, love—sometimes I use them simply as a distraction. I [painted the cover] for a John Legend album and I used the protea flower, which is indigenous to South Africa. It just made sense for that story. But a lot of times it’s the color of the flower that I'm focusing on.
Your work is layered. You often attach wooden pieces to the canvas or surface to add depth. Bold colors, portraiture, and flowers are also running themes. As an artist, what does it mean for you to have a signature style?
I don't want to say it was accidental, because I mentor a lot of young people and I'm always talking to them about finding their own way. I think the only way you can find your own voice is to be internal, to let the internal reflect [outwards]. Otherwise, you're going to always look like someone else.
It took me years to get to a point—where I'm no longer watching what everybody else is doing—and suddenly something else is happening. Those are the "ah-ha" moments. If something tells me to go in a totally different direction, I'm going to go there, because again, I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, and every time I've done it, it's worked for me.
The artist can navigate any environment, the same can be said for athletes.
You were selected to paint the forthcoming cover for the anticipated NBA 2K22 video game, in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the league. What was your inspiration behind this project?
So this is such a dream job because if there is a sport I absolutely love, it’s basketball. When Ronnie 2K came to me, at first, I didn't know who he was. He hit me up several times on Instagram and I ignored every message. Then I called my brother, and he's like, are you kidding? Then I realized this was a legitimate opportunity.
They selected the players and then gave me a slew of great images to choose from. I wanted a headshot and action shot. And I started playing with that. They've all made major contributions to the game. Dirk [Nowitzki] brought that style that's become so common in the game. I don’t even know how to explain KD’s [Kevin Durant’s] style, but he has it. And Kareem had that skyhook. It was great to see the combination of guys and try to make complement one another.
Before the NBA 2K cover, you were also commissioned to create work for the Green Bay Packers NFL team in Wisconsin. What do you think when the arts and spots crossover?
They make sense for me because they're spaces driven by excitement and emotion. I decided to never be pigeonholed. I've moved into this space where I'm more focused on my fine art and this project came along. But it's my dream job because I always loved sports illustration. And now I'm getting a chance after thirty years to have fun with that. As I did, when I did a couple of paintings for the Packers and the Milwaukee Bucks [basketball team] and I love those. I love when people trust me enough to just let me do what I do.
It’s great when you see things in unexpected spaces. You don't have to be in a museum to see great art and sports don’t have to be reserved for stadiums.
The hip hop artist, Killer Mike, commissioned me to do a couple of pieces for his barbershop in the basketball stadium here in Atlanta, where you can get your hair cut and watch the game. Think about that combination. The stadium is the barbershop. It's art. These cultural entities are all combined.
Your painting, In Her Eyes, was used as a Time Magazine cover for their America Must Change issue. What makes art an effective social tool?
The artist can navigate any environment, the same can be said for athletes. Some people expect athletes to remain silent and not express their own beliefs, but you have an audience, why not express your ideas and effectively make a change?