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The art of leaving


Cedar Hills artist shares magic of concrete-cast leaves at Wild Arts Festival

by: JONATHAN HOUSE - Cedar Hills artist Roberta Palmer discusses the process behind her painted, concrete-cast leaves near the workshop in her backyard, the original source of the leaves.As an accomplished visual artist, Roberta Palmer’s creations begin not with a brushstroke, canvas or shapeless lump of clay, but in the soil of her backyard garden.

As unglamorous as that may sound, when your goal is casting concrete leaves, gardening skills are essential to the process.

Yes, that’s right: concrete leaves.

After nurturing gunnera and darmara plants to broad-leafed maturity, the Cedar Hills artist casts their deep, intricate grooves in a thick layer of cement-like polymer clay. Once the material dries, the concrete mold of the leaf becomes a canvas on which Palmer works her magic, painting the contoured surface in shades that accentuate each unique cranny, ridge and vein pattern.

Passionate about art since kindergarten, the Chicago native picked up her cast concrete habit from seeing Bainbridge, Wash.-based artists Little and Lewis demonstrate the unique craft on television.

“I saw it and said, ‘Oh, I’ve got to learn how to do this,’” she recalls. “I thought it was the neatest thing, to put some concrete on the back of a leaf. I didn’t know it would become anything more than a hobby. It just kind of evolved.”

Selling her leaves to a lady at church and getting plenty of encouragement along the way, the hobby gradually morphed into what is now a full time, if not wildly lucrative, career.

Palmer, 60, will demonstrate her mastery of the vegetation-rooted specialty this weekend at the 32nd annual Wild Arts Festival, held Saturday (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and Sunday (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.) at Montgomery Park, 2701 N.W. Vaughn St., in Portland. Hosted by the Portland Audubon Society, Wild Arts celebrates the natural side of the arts and letters with 70 artists and 30 authors participating this year.by: JONATHAN HOUSE - Cedar Hills artist Roberta Palmer shows off one of her painted, concrete-cast leaves that originate in her backyard garden.

Getting better

A 30-year Beaverton resident, Palmer — who majored in art at Northeastern Illinois University on a talent scholarship — says it took some time for her work to live up to Wild Arts Festival standards.

“I applied years ago, but didn’t get in,” she says.

Discouraged from the process of proving her talents, Palmer’s devotion and evolution as an artist eventually paid off.

“I improved with time,” she says. “When you stick with it, in time you keep evolving, getting better at it. There were a couple of years where I really hated doing this, but I just had to change my attitude. Now I’m fine with it.”

Palmer alternates her workspace between a covered patio near her garden and an indoor studio in a spare bedroom. Her darmera plants start blooming around April and keep coming well into October. Other plants, such as the castor bean, come up a bit later once the ground warms up.

Once she has a good plant to pluck, the casting process for a larger leaf takes up to two hours. Placing the leaf on a plastic-lined mound of sand, Palmer makes sure she follows the natural shape of the leaf. Applying polymer clay on top of the leaf, the artist takes care to keep excess material from the edges.

“You don’t want to go over the edge,” she says. “You’ll end up with a huge messy area.”

Casting in moderate temperatures prevents the casts from drying too fast, a no-no as far as bringing out the full intricacies of a leaf.

“When it’s like 90 degrees out, I don’t cast. The worst thing is when it’s hot out,” she says. “This occupies me even all winter. I prefer to be outside, so winters can be rough. But I’m inside with the concrete and polymer clay.”

Subtle shading

Usually working on about six leaves at a time, Palmer admits not every one turns out the way she envisioned.

“The good news is, I always have people who are happy with seconds,” she says of flawed yet appealing cast leaves. “Some I use for painting classes. Most of the seconds get homes anyway.”

While casting takes considerable patience and finesse, Palmer credits her choice of colors and painting textures with setting her work apart from others.

“What people say to me is they like my painting techniques — the blending of colors,” she says, noting she relies on her husband, Gene, a retired quality assurance manager at Tektronix, to cast a critical eye. “I ask him to come look at ’em. He’s always good with quality assurance.”

Through farmers markets, festivals and her website, Palmer sells her wares from $20 to $140, depending on size and intricacy of the leaf. Aside from the creative process, she says it’s the joy she sees in those who like her work that keeps her motivation going.

“You just have to be open to all the information that comes to you,” she says of the feedback she receives from “all the wonderful people I meet.

“The journey is wonderful.”

Catch the show

What: Cedar Hills artist Roberta Palmer will feature her cast-concrete leaves at the 32nd annual Wild Arts Festival, hosted by the Portland Audubon Society

Where: Montgomery Park, 2701 N.W. Vaughn St., Portland

When: Saturday, Nov. 17, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 18, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Wild Arts information: Visit wildartsfestival.org or call 503-292-6855

Roberta Palmer’s website: artovermacleaypark.com/index.php/artists-2/roberta-palmer/