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She works 60 to 70 hours per week because, she says: “I love what I do that much, it’s by choice.” Good to know, because this artist needs every waking moment to continue her quest for advocacy and arts engagement.
Elizabeth Palmisano is an Artist-in-Residence for the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, Artist-in-Residence at Fort Mill Cooperative Pre-school, Tiny house studio owner and the recipient of the Queen City Nerves Readers Choice award winner for Best Visual Artist (2020).
Beneath your profile photo on your Facebook page is a quote. Tell us about that.
My mother describes me as “a Steel Fist in a Velvet Glove.” People who know me would describe me as kind, gentle, safe. Someone they feel comfortable to be vulnerable with and never feel judged [by]. But I’m also very loud, opinionated and have an intrinsic sense of what is right, and don’t mind telling you. So yes, I have what Reverend Barber of The Poor People’s Campaign calls “Righteous Rage.” Righteous Rage, because there’s nothing wrong with being angry for the right reason.
What I do with that anger is very important, so my personal mantra is “What’s more important to me, being right or getting what I want?” If I make it about being right, I’m not going to change their minds. So, I focus on what I want, for them to have a change of heart. So, when I speak to someone, even though I’m strong in how I feel, I’m soft in my approach. I don’t make people feel bad, even if I think they’re very wrong. So, my mom describes me this way because I’m coming with a sense of strength. I make things happen and get people to change their minds and perceptions. I’m strong in my advocacy but my delivery is gentle. Shame and guilt have no place in my advocacy work or my creative practice.
Are you a native Charlottian?
I love and hate that question. Now when people ask me, I say I’m from Charlotte because I moved from a little town in Upstate New York to South Carolina when I was 11. Then as a teenager, I moved to Charlotte. I’ve been here ever since and I’m 37, so I’m not culturally southern but I am a Charlottean. I love my city, I’m very proud to live here.
Where did you go to school?
Well, I dropped out of school when I was 15 and it’s too long of a story to explain all the details but I didn’t get my GED until I was 22. I ultimately did go to college. A mentor, Christine Boatwright, gave me a job [at her pre-school] and encouraged me to go to college. I was there looking for childcare for my [then] three-year old son and [to] find a job. She gave me both, childcare and a job. She’s amazing. She sent me to school for free and promoted me from an assistant teacher to a lead teacher to an after-school coordinator and ultimately the program coordinator.
I’ll never forget her. I was young, 24 and had been promoted to program coordinator. I was her right-hand woman and one day I’m standing in a classroom and someone said my name and I said “What?” Christine was standing there and said, “I’m gonna’ need you to stop doing that.”
I said, “What?” and she said, “That, saying what.”
I was confused and then she said to me, “I know where it comes from, but in a professional setting when someone calls your name, the appropriate response is yes.” I heard her, wanted to comply and I took it very seriously. I felt, this is what empowerment feels like. Someone sees you; they don’t judge you. When Christine said what she did, I didn’t feel wrong, bad or guilty. I just felt understood. So for me, those steps of seeing someone and acknowledging them where they feel understood, is something that permeates all of my work.
I knew in that moment I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be able to talk to people that way. As a high school drop out with a messy childhood, I didn’t have a desire to better myself until Christine took the time to see me and offer me a different way. She took the morality out of it. This type of work takes time and that’s why I chose to work in community and programs where I’m allowed that time – in my advocacy and my art.
What is it that you do regarding advocacy?
I work with a lot of different nonprofits and organizations. I always pick three per year as community partners who can ask me for things; things like expressive workshops with clients, volunteer teacher training, murals, donating work for auctions, anything in my wheelhouse. I advocate for anyone that I feel called to work with. My work started out advocating for people of low wage and low wealth.
Would you share a little about your art with QNotes readers?
My art is all community inspired and process based. Process versus product. When people ask me what’s my primary medium. My answer is typically “play.” I like to play with children, I love to get adults to play, it’s one of my biggest kicks because we take ourselves so seriously. I don’t care what the art looks like in the end, it’s about the experience, the feelings that come up during the process and sometimes the way that I design my workshops and classes. I model vulnerability and my approach is that of a guide. I’m very specific in how I set it up. I place myself as participant and helper. When people allow themselves to play and just be immersed within the experience, the art at the end, the product is always beautiful.
Art is the one place where there is no right and wrong.
Who takes your classes?
Typically women, children and non-gender conforming folks. It’s not typically cis men.
Why not cis men?
I believe the people who show up are the people who are supposed to be in the room; those who are attracted to the experience. That’s not typically cis men for whatever reason. I’ve done workshops with organizations that have included cis men and I do gender inclusive programing. However, I seem to attract women more often. Many times, it is women who have started to invest in themselves, and have begun to think “I have worth” and now realize they can take an art class, that it’s not frivolous. And if it is [frivolous] that’s okay, too.
My art is all community inspired and process based.
Let’s talk about you attracting women. What about in your personal life, are you attracting women there also?
<Laughs warmly> Just one woman. Her name is Krystle Baller and she’s amazing! She is my exact perfect match in every way. We do the exact same work except her medium is music and mine is visual art. So, we’re getting married.
We met at “Girls Rock,” a volunteer event, and fell in love in 2019 at “Charlotte Shout” – an enormous three-week long arts festival where all of Uptown Charlotte becomes a giant interactive art installation. It’s been cancelled this year, postponed until next year due to COVID. I was supposed to have 21 pieces included and I will when they come back in fall of 2022.
Have you set a wedding date?
We’ll be married on Sept 29 in front of these giant 2 story tall inflatable lit up bunnies in Romare Bearden Park. They’re part of the Charlotte Should exhibit. It’s a flash style wedding, anybody who happens to be in the park can witness our union.
Congrats. When you look at your life so far, bunnies aside, what are you most proud of?
My son, he just turned 18. He got his first job as a teacher’s assistant and came home tearful one day over how a student was being treated by his peers. It disturbed him, he cried while explaining to me what happened.
I have raised a white cisgender straight man who is in touch with his feelings, he’s not afraid to cry, an empathetic caring man. We need more of those in the world. I’m very proud of my son. He’s very kind, and he values people, to include women.
That’s beautiful. No wonder you’re proud of him. As an artist pillar of our community, is there anything you wish for when you think of current and upcoming area artists?
Safe, affordable space to do their work and the time and money they need [to do it].
Any final words of advice for artists?
Take as many risks as possible and don’t should on yourself. If you would do it differently next time – do it.
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