Celebrating A Culture’s History

by Maureen Federo

Outside of the Black Arts and Cultural Center sits James C. Palmore’s The Velvelettes (2008). The portrait of Motown’s 1960’s singing group exposes glamour in their all white elegant gowns with white dots dangling as sparkling diamond earrings that range in different styles of accessory. Their elaborate hairstyles and tall postures add to their elegance and success as a representation of a part of the history of music that brought young African Americans together during a time of blatant racism.

In my interview with the artist, Palmore explained the history of how the group was formulated in the 1960s when two of the members, Mildred, (far right) a student at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo along with Bertha (far left) who was the only African American music major in 1961. Once Bertha’s cousin Norma (second to last, right) and Mildred’s sister Cal (second, left) joined the group, together they performed on talent shows, worked with gospel groups, and were assigned a contract with Motown as The Velvelettes, one of the first singing groups of the history of the record label. [1]

What brought my attention to the painting is the realistic aspect the artist captures within the many intricate details of the wardrobe and facial features of the figures. As Palmore explained, the importance of the painting is to capture the life and spirit of the figures within each brushstroke, which defines the artist’s unique interpretation of photorealism. Palmore used photorealism as a way to project, conserve, and bring back to life the achievements of the African American culture, and the fact that over the years, they created the sense of unity and community through the entertainment of music as one of the historical upbringings during a racially prejudiced point in time.

In Patrick Manning’s The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture, Manning explains how the effects of slavery and racism affected the community of the African American culture:

“The long oppression of slavery and racism led ironically to the flowering of black popular culture. The deprivation brought by slavery, racism, and colonialism denied Africans the opportunity to sustain powerful elites…As a result, the most talented artists…were left to entertain members of their own communities.” [2]

Manning points out the African American culture’s need of finding their own identity once they liberated themselves from white rule. Artists took it upon themselves to reach out to their own communities and build the foundation they needed through the means of performing arts. As an African American artist, Palmore incorporated photorealism, an artistic style of the 1960s, which originated during the beginning of the artist’s career and during the years of the success of The Velvelettes and their record label, Motown. He did this in order to celebrate his culture’s historical achievement of creating a unified community through original performing arts, such as music and dance, during a time when political and societal movements of the 1960s created a divide among people.

The idea of photorealism is to reproduce in painting what the camera records. Therefore Palmore, along with other artists of photorealism, used the lifelike qualities of photography and its shadows as finishing touches. However, Palmore’s major concern in producing this type of art is grasping the representation of a positive image from a community, specifically with the figures in the painting. The artist described his painting techniques as a motion he constantly needs to edit as he makes a mark on the canvas. “So what I do is I’m editing. Before my hand comes down and makes a mark I make a decision. If the mark shows some life, I keep it. So it’s a process, every hand gesture has to show a sign of life,” said Palmore. [3]

James. C. Palmore, The Velvelettes, 2008. Paint on canvas. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Palmore carefully applied these techniques to the figures by characterizing them through their features. The figure that mostly stands out is the lead singer and the youngest of the group, Cal, who Palmore depicts with a soft expression, which we can see in her relaxed lips and wondering eyes that stare out into a dreamy mood, while the other figures direct their eyes to their audience. Each figure has a different hairstyle and accessory that collectively work to portray their classic character while their white gown wardrobes and neckline remain the same to justify them as one complete singing group. The artist carefully portrayed the specific shadows within the strands of hair near the scalp, which give volume and depth to the figures’ hairdos, and reflected those shadows on their skin as well from the fallen hair strands upon their foreheads. Palmore then used cooler colors to show the highlights on the ends of the hair to incorporate the lighting upon the figures, which complements the shadows of the painting. One cannot see exactly where the light that reflects on the figures is coming from within the painting. However, the lighting coming from the ceiling of the hallway space shines right on the figures as spotlights. The tall and direct postures of the figures create the sense that they are slightly popping out of the painting to embrace that ceiling lighting as their spotlight within the painting.

James C. Palmore continues to express his cultural history and how music forms as part of the African American identity that contributed to their unification as a community, stating that “Music has done the most correcting in the maltreatment of African American racism in this country. Motown started in the late 1950s, and I see it as one of the things that really brought the young folks together. And this singing group is one of them that did that.” [4] The singing group’s contribution to the Kalamazoo city community today has continued to inspire the artist and has motivated him to recognize the achievement of his culture and influenced his career in the black arts.


[1] James C. Palmore, personal communication, 17 May 2012.

[2] Patrick Manning, The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009). http://cup.columbia.edu/media/4814/manning-excerpt.pdf.

[3] Palmore, op cit.

[4] Ibid.


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