Testing his metal

A young artist overcomes paralysis and goes on to create large-scale sculptures

When Chris Palmer broke his neck doing flips on a trampoline in his Littleton, Colo., back yard, creating large-scale metal sculptures wasn’t his goal—learning how to walk again was. The doctor’s diagnosis was that the 16-year-old Palmer would never take another step. He was paralyzed from the chest down. The only movement in Palmer’s hands was in his index and middle fingers, and those he could only wiggle.

“A lot of younger people, my peers, don’t really understand the severity of [my injury],” Palmer said. “They don’t understand that when you break your neck, most of the time you’re done. You’re in a wheelchair the rest of your life.”

Palmer, however, beat the odds. Only four years after his accident, Palmer walks, albeit with a limp and a cane. He said he isn’t deflated because of his disability—rather, it has strengthened him and inspired his art.

“It’s a good sense of accomplishment,” Palmer said. “[The disability] makes me want to go bigger with my work, to do work that is more concentrated. People will see me, and they won’t believe that I made this piece.”

Palmer, a sophomore chemistry major at the University of Nevada, Reno, said that he always knew he’d be an artist. His first serious attempts at art were pencil and ink illustrations influenced by comic book art.

“In sixth-grade, I figured out that I drew better than the rest of the kids,” he said. “I’ve wanted to be an artist for a long time.”

Palmer is a strong painter and illustrator, and some of his work has been displayed at Gallery 211, inside Not Too Shabby on First Street. But painting is too time-consuming, he explained, and he doesn’t have enough time to draw. He said that he’d rather be in his garage sculpting metal.

“Painting is flat,” he said. “With sculpture it is real life, three-dimensional. You can walk around it and touch it. It’s cool to have a big sculpture.”

Palmer has only been working with metal for two years. After seeing his two figurative sculptures, “Jake” and “Tyler,” you’d think Palmer had been bending metal a lot longer.

While working for Brett Torvic Design in Reno, Palmer became interested in metal work. He said that watching Torvic sand and polish wood and metal gave him ideas to create metal sculptures.

“Torvic’s diagonal metal grindings have become a technique I use in my work. I’m very inspired by him,” he said.

His first sculpture, “Jake,” just hangs, like a defeated soldier after a war. This warrior sits in front of the Moore Architecture building in South Reno. Its ribs twist as its hand clutches a sharp sword. With the help of friends, the project took only one week to complete.

His second sculpture, “Tyler,” stands in his front yard, holding a sword and grabbing the attention of curious onlookers as they drive past his Seventh Street home.

Unlike some sculptors, who focus on the abstract, working with geometric shapes and lines, Palmer pursues the realistic in his work.

"I like to make art that is recognizable," Palmer said. "He’s so cool when you see him. He has a lot of character. The sword is kind of barbaric; it goes good with the metal. The sword is like a personal, individual and independent strength."