Mendocino Stories


Olaf Palm
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Author Irene D. Thomas


Olaf Palm Book Cover Olaf Palm –
‘A California Old Master’
by Irene D. Thomas

“My painting is a personal language. One, which I hope, everyone can understand. To relate to life and my surroundings through painting is irresistible. I find constant inspiration in the common experience and daily activities of my family and friends.” –Olaf Palm

Olaf Palm (1935-2000) was a star of this art colony's community of painters, most of them agreeing he was the best in his class. A realist in the manner of the Dutch Masters, a chronicler of his time and environment (the Northern California, post Berkeley, back-to-the-land movement) and those who shared both with him, Palm continues to be well-loved for his painterly styles and remembered for the larger-than-life figure he was.

Palm was a painter in oils with a far-flung reputation and a loyal local following. A realist, trained in the traditional techniques of the Dutch and Flemish masters, Palm’s subjects ranged from political protest, to still lifes, to portraiture, highly inventive character genres, and travel subjects. In all of these, his eventual mastery of chiaroscuro stands out as remarkable among his peers. Having come of age in the Santa Clara valley, evolving artistically along the Santa Cruz coast and during his European travels, he finally made his home for more than thirty years along the Mendocino Coast, where he lived the simple bohemian life of the quintessential Northern California artist.



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Irene Thomas, his biographer, calls him a “kind of California Old Master,” who went in his own painterly direction at a time when the art world was preoccupied with Abstract Expression. Palm's specialty subject, many believe, were his genre paintings: people at work, at play, in quiet conversations or contemplative states, ordinary people doing ordinary things, many of them Palm's friends and family. As a Mendocino resident, as a musician and raconteur, and as an avid supporter of other artists, Palm touched the lives of almost everyone in his community.

A Brief Biography

Born in 1935, Olaf came west with his family from Detroit when he was eight years old. A graduate of Los Gatos High School, he went on to receive his Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts from San Jose State. He followed that with more art studies in Carmel, Hawaii and Mexico, becoming an elementary school teacher at one point. The children loved him, the administrators less so. He simply had his own ideas about the curriculum.

Dee Lemos wrote the following in her obituary for the Fort Bragg Advocate-News, November 2, 2000: “The turning point for Olaf was when he went to Holland in 1964 to see the Dutch Masters for himself. With few detours along the way, painting became his day job and his real job from then on.

“By 1965, he had been featured in galleries in San Francisco, Sausalito, Monterey, Los Gatos, Carmel and Santa Cruz. He became a legend in Capitola, Calif., (where he lived with his first wife Eva and children Jennifer and Andy) because of his efforts at historical preservation there.

“Olaf lived most of his last thirty years of his life on the Mendocino Coast, where he painted his life and lived his painting.

“Beginning in the mid 70’s, Olaf’s place in the art and music of the Mendocino Coast was to become legendary. Olaf actively promoted the overall art climate of the community, sponsoring art and music camps with his second wife Susan, bringing music to the coast by producing shows and performing himself in jazz and folk bands. His art work continued to be exhibited around the country.”

Olaf died at age 65 at the home of his dearest friend Jim Larsen. His life was celebrated in New Orleans style: a musical profession of family and friends from far and wide, walking and singing “Saints Go Marching In" accompanied by bagpipes, fiddles, mandolins, accordions, saxophones, trumpets and clarinets, and following his hearse of choice-- his beloved 50's era red pickup. The memorial service continued at the grave site that he picked himself, and in the coffin he made with his own hands.

A Tribute from a friend

(partial excerpts from a review written by Debbie Holmer for the Coast Real Estate Magazine)

Olaf Palm, A Life in Art, a richly illustrated art biography, celebrates the life of this remarkable man. How best to do this? Through his remarkable work, of course. Irene D. Thomas has done just that in this magnificent publication.

Each page is a gift to the reader. Irene worked on this project for two years, planning the publication to coincide with the five-year anniversary of Olaf Palm’s death. “Olaf was a great friend,” states Irene. “I had a deep affection for him as a human being and felt that his art work needed to be appreciated even more widely than it is.

She first met Olaf in 1989 when he played jazz bass at a party given for Owen Thomas, her late husband, who had just recovered from a bout with cancer. A few months later, Owen became gravely ill. During this time, Olaf would bring them firewood, homemade wine, quirky stories, and a dedicated friendship. Irene was able to do the same for Olaf when just ten years later, he was battling cancer himself.

Palm's art, music and presence touched so many lives, including her own. She told me, "I wanted those who didn’t know him to have the opportunity to ‘feel his presence’ and see his work.” So she decided to tell his story through his paintings..... Much of the book's text has been gathered from Olaf’s writerly and witty journals (generously loaned to Irene by his daughter Jennifer) and also interviews and news clippings.

You can purchase Olaf Palm, A Life in Art by Irene D. Thomas Ph.D.
It was designed by Dale Moyer of Moyer Designs Inc,, and published by Redwood Springs Press.
180 full color images on 144 pages in a 10 x 10 “coffee table,” soft cover, limited edition. $35

Olaf Palm - Page 1

You can also find more information about Olaf Palm and his work at:

Other sites that feature Olaf Palm's paintings

Olaf Painting 1
Olaf Palm by Irene D. Thomas

Drop Irene Thomas an e-mail note,
let her hear from you.



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