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Meet the world-renowned artist from Milwaukee who's pushing the way we read children's books

“What I tried to find, especially now, is give me a story where the main character happens to be Black, but the story isn't about being Black."
Posted at 10:39 AM, Feb 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-22 07:47:04-05

MILWAUKEE — A world-renowned artist and illustrator who grew up in the north side of Milwaukee released a new children's book featuring the Cream City. Charly Palmer might not be a household name, but his art might be in your household in a few ways.

“I’m still to this day just amazed that I get paid to have fun,” said Charly.

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The artist and author Charly Palmer hold his book, "The Legend of Gravity: A Tall Basketball Tale."

The north side native did the cover art for the video game NBA 2K22, he has illustrated nearly a dozen children’s books, and his work has appeared on the cover of Time magazine. But he says his biggest accomplishment didn’t come until he was nearly 60 years old when he drew the cover for John Legend’s album, "Bigger Love."

Bigger Love cover by Charly Palmer
The album cover for John Legend's Bigger Love was created by Charly Palmer.

“My greatest success has only happened in the last two and a half years. But I've been doing this for 40 years,” said Charly.

Charly grew up on Milwaukee’s north side and graduated from Custer High School.

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Artist Charly Palmer works on a painting.

“My parents moved to Milwaukee when I was four years old,” said Charly. “We moved to Vliet Street. Then we move to the projects, and then my mom purchased a house on Capitol Drive, I think I was 12 years old, we moved to Capitol Drive.”

Charly calls the neighborhood he grew up in tough and says his life could have taken a different path - but he had art. Inspired by his teachers, he started taking art classes at the Art Museum. He says even though he loved it, no one would have called him the best.

Charly Palmer sits with his artwork which is on the cover of John Legend's Bigger Love.

“I was pretty good at it, and I wouldn't say that was great because I would honestly say that even when I was taking the classes at the art center, I was one of the average young people,” said Charly.

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Charly Palmer grew up on Milwaukee's north side. He is now an author, illustrator, artist and professor.

Charly says what he did have was a passion for art. It led him to go to college at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Though he admits school was a struggle at times.

“What I now call and recognize it as a superpower, I have attention deficit disorder and so my mind is everywhere always,” said Charly.

That mind has helped Charly create the illustrations for nearly a dozen children's books along with a painting that hangs around the world, including some that are in the suites at Lambeau Field.

Some of his pieces have message and meaning about African ancestry and race. However, Charly says when it comes to most of his children’s book, he creates drawings where children of color can see themselves in normal situations, like other kids.

“What I tried to find, especially now, is give me a story where the main character happens to be Black, but the story isn't about being Black. Because too often even in the children's books today, it's about the Civil Rights movement, it's about slavery, it's about the past and the struggles. And not that I want to ignore that or dismiss that, it's just like there's a book that I illustrated called "Rainy Day Rocket Ship" and it's about a kid stuck in the house on a rainy day,” said Charly.

Charly Palmer holds book
Charly Palmer points out Milwaukee's Art Museum is on the first page of his book, "The Legend of Gravity: A Tall Basketball Tale."

The most recent book that Charly both wrote and illustrated is called “The Legend of Gravity: A Tall Basketball Tale.” It is about pick up games on neighborhood courts. He drew from his experience playing basketball on the courts of Hillside. The main character is a boy nicknamed Gravity.

“It had to do with the silliness and the crazy stories that we experienced or told when it came to kids on courts that were just phenomenal that never made it. Of course, their dream was to become professional basketball players, but many of them didn't make it. And that's okay, because we had the experience of witnessing a Gravity,” said Charly.

Charly says the door is always open for whatever is next, because he says art is not work to him, so he has no plans to stop or retire.

“Success is a journey, it's not a destination. So for me it's never been 'I've gotten there.' It's like I'm trying to get there, and I will be trying to get there for the rest of my life,” said Charly.

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