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Thursday, February 21, 2013

The iconographer of "cooneytoons"


Gary at the Ponte Vecchio last year
Happy birthday to my brother-in-law and "pal of my cradle days," Gary Palmatier, whom I've known since 1966 and who has blessed my life in ways large and small ever since.

Montebello is a small suburb of Los Angeles near Whittier and Pico Rivera, just east of East Los Angeles, where St. Vincent's Seminary, my high school alma mater, used to be. I say "used to be" because the buildings are still there, but it has long since become an evangelization center, still run by the Vincentians. In the years since the Second Vatican Council, happily, the approach to priestly formation has changed, and rather than keeping kids in homogeneous groupings from the time they are out of the eighth grade until they ordained, the trend has been to let men answer the call to priesthood after they have been through college. But in 1965, along with about 40 other boys right out of the 8th grade, I headed to St. Vincent's to discern my career path with others who thought they might want to be Vincentian priests.


Gary, in our Montebello days.
(not really, it's Wonder Warthog)
In my second year at Montebello, I met Gary when he came in as a freshman. Gary was an artist, and a very fine one, even at that age. He and I became good friends over the next three years. Gary's family lived right in Montebello, two or three miles from the seminary. I had other good friends there who had mercy on me occasionally and brought me home to spend free days (these happened one weekend a month or so), including a friend whom I had known in grammar school and whose family had since moved to Burbank. But most often, I spent these days with Gary and his mother and father. It was in Gary's house that I came to appreciate Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, and the other great bands of era that were NOT the Beachboys (it was a matter of survival not to be an LA Rams fan like most of my classmates, as well as to avoid most surfer music. The distaste for the music was mostly feigned, however, as the Beachboys had me at "I Get Around" and never let go, even after "Heroes and Villains" became an oldie.) It was also there, in Gary's room at Montebello, I was introduced to the mystical "underground" comic book called  Wonder Warthog, the Hog of Steel, which I came to love even more than Green Lantern and the Justice League. Few freedoms in life will ever compare with the freedom to go out on a Saturday morning and walk the mile or so to the local Winchell’s and have a couple of donuts and hot chocolate. After the sometimes suffocating common life of the high school seminary, these pastry junkets were theophanies, and Winchell’s was Mount Tabor.

Gary was a bass in the seminary choir, I was a 2nd tenor. The director of the choir, David Windsor, also ran a choir school for boys in Whittier, and had a traveling group called the Windsor Boys Choir who had sung for Queen Elizabeth and other dignitaries in annual concertizing trips to Europe. The seminary choir wasn't of the same caliber as the Windsor Boys, but we did sing regularly at Los Angeles churches, especially the old cathedral, St. Vibiana's, and St. Vincent de Paul Church, in downtown Los Angeles. On a couple of occasions, we toured other Vincentian churches, including St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix. It was probably on one of these trips, or on summer visits to the house, that Gary met my sister Cathy, who was just a year and a half younger than he. Not that I noticed, but they fell in love. 


When Cathy graduated from high school, Gary and she married, in January of 1972. I don't remember much about their life at the time while they lived in Phoenix, but among the surreal pieces characteristic of my memories of Gary, I know that he worked for a while at a chinchilla farm. Later they moved to Los Angeles while he did his alternative service during Vietnam at the Catholic Worker House, and eventually they ended up in Santa Rosa, California, raising their three daughters Renée, Jeannette, and Noelle.

It is Gary's vision and artistry that has produced the covers of my albums over the years. Sometimes I would give him an idea about what I thought the cover might suggest, but most often he would just listen to me describe the music (he would not have heard the music, because the development of the art would be happening while the recording was being produced) and then do a cover piece to suggest the content. He was already doing some experimentation with digital art in the mid-1980's, and though there are hints of it on the covers of "You Alone" and "Do Not Fear to Hope," the cover of "Mystery" (1987) was the first one of mine to really show his design talent. The covers of the two "Cries of the Spirit" collections also showed the range of his ability with digital art.
The cover art for "Christ the Icon" is a mural
which deserves (and will get) a post of its own.

Above and below, the covers for "Cries of the Spirit",
volumes 1 and 2, expressive of their content, the psalms. 

You Alone (1984)

"Do Not Fear to Hope" (1985)

"Mystery" (1987), still one of my favorites.

"Keep Awake" (2000), another one dear to me.

The surrealistic trumpet replacing the sun on "This Very
Morning" announces both Easter and "The Trumpet
in the Morning"

The beautiful original artwork at the center of the cover of "Safety Harbor"

My personal favorite cover, which captured the "vision" of
the collection and the image in the lyric, "one is the breath/
of the star and the rose." (Vision, 1992)

Gary has a commercial art studio called Ideas to Images in Santa Rosa, California, where he still lives with my sister after 41 years of marriage and is enjoying being the grandfather of four! Gary, thank you for everything, especially for your wild sense of humor and generosity. You're one of a kind, and I'm grateful for your presence in my life.