Shaping imagination and examining issues

Io Palmer and Manal Alharthi.“In the classroom, incredible things and conversations can happen around the making of art. The process opens your soul,” said Io Palmer, WSU associate professor of fine arts.

“My background set the stage for me to pursue something that brings me a lot of fulfillment, and I want to facilitate that experience for others,” Palmer said. “I want to show students art can be life-affirming and also be a deep, rich vehicle for expression.”

“Art is a wonderful world to be part of. It’s constantly challenging and interesting,” said Palmer, who is also the ceramics/3D foundations area coordinator for the Department of Fine Arts.

Through art, Palmer builds bridges. She brings art to those who have explored it—and those who have not. She believes art not only builds bridges but understanding.

Across those bridges, Palmer asks, ‘How can this journey be both challenging and inclusive?’

Art as origin

“I identify so much with being an artist,” she said. “In large part, my life is informed by my art practice, and there’s nothing like being in the studio and making. Throughout my life, art has saved me, put me on the right path, and always been the constant.”

Io Palmers face surrounded by colorful clay dishes.
Io Palmer.

Born in Greece, Palmer and her family moved to the United States when she was a child and settled in western Pennsylvania. She discovered her passion for art in a home where both parents were artists.

“My father died ten years ago, and his artwork was his legacy, his love notes,” she said. “So, what I do now is a continuation of my father’s love. My mother still lives a very creative life.”

During high school, Palmer took the art classes offered there.

“I loved painting,” she said. ‘When I left high school, I was on a mission to go to art school and devote my life to art. I haven’t looked back since.”

Along with the positive influence of childhood experiences, challenges have also shaped the direction of Palmer’s work.

“If I let those inform who I am, I wouldn’t be leading this wonderful, wonderful life. Pain could have defined my life,” she said. “Instead, I’ve used adversity to fuel my going forward.”

A Berry Family Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts from 2018–2021, Palmer brings the full spectrum of her journey to her work, research, and teaching. Both happiness and anguish merge in a kaleidoscope through which Palmer reflects and illuminates fresh perspectives and understanding.

Art as affirmation

Annie Cunningham (’17 MFA) studied with Palmer during her studies, and also worked alongside Palmer as an instructor in the Department of Fine Arts.

“I was fortunate to have Io as a guide and mentor,” said Cunningham, who is currently pursuing a PhD in change leadership for equity and inclusion, with a focus on the presence of minorities within the contemporary art museum/gallery system.

“She pushed me to be more critical and aware of my “why,” as well as my “how” when approaching visual art projects and research. She asked me the hard questions while being supportive and provided me with a thirst to grow without losing my confidence. Io has inspired, encouraged, and nudged me in the right direction when life gets tough.

“She is a force unlike anyone I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

Art as exploration and expression

In her studio, Palmer cultivates a fallow field where students explore their creativity and examine challenging subjects.

“The love of making art can also be very much about bigger ideas,” she said. “Essentially, my personal history has guided my interest in making work about race, class, and social structure. I make use of my art as scholars use words—to share stories and ideas.”

Female student working on a large clay sculpture of a tree stump with a face.
WSU student Sarah Kemmerer
female student working on small clay sculpture.
WSU student Bri Thompson.

In projects and collaborations, Palmer shares these through connections with others.

Concept Clay, one of Palmer’s current initiatives, aims to create artist-led public art projects with local and national communities. One of the current projects through that initiative is a ceramic installation that will hang at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

“Inspiration for this piece stems from medicinal plants and the socially responsible, socially engaged medical practice they’re doing at the College of Medicine,” she said.

Through a grant from WSU, Palmer worked with her assistant, Kassie Smith, and graduate research assistant, Siri Stensberg, on the intricate design constructed from hundreds of ceramic pieces wired together.

Future plans for Concept Clay include collaborating with individuals and groups who have historically been marginalized. Launched in 2017, Concept Clay utilizes WSU ceramics labs to connect with students and communities through online and in-person workshops, classes, and projects.

As with Palmer’s other work, Concept Clay creates space for conversations about deeper issues with audiences from local to global.

“I want these opportunities to be available for native, black, LGBTQ, and other communities,” she said. “The idea is that our little ceramics area at WSU will be a satellite to connect with students and artists around the world.

“My platform is as a visual artist. So, the most authentic way I can give back to society in my way is when people are part of a bigger initiative, and there’s a conversation where making is happening. I, myself, wish I was more connected to more diverse communities, so this initiative is part of that.”

Concept Clay was accepted to the 2022 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference in Sacramento, where Palmer will share the initiative with a kindred audience.

Art as business

During the past several years, grants and other funding have helped Palmer achieve her creative goals.

In addition to the Berry professorship, she was the recipient of ADVANCE and Office of Research RA and $10K grants at WSU. In 2019, she also received a Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award which led to a six-month study in India.

Female artist works on a colorful hanging project.
Io Palmer.

“It’s so important that WSU has supported me and these art endeavors because I know what we do in the art department isn’t always understood in the same way as other departments are,” she said.

Because Palmer recognizes the financial requisites necessary to sustain a creative life, she has built a studio where commerce and creativity intersect. In this space, students not only learn about the transformative power of art but how to attain financial autonomy.

As part of that objective, Palmer worked with colleagues across disciplines to create a tangible path toward that goal. She collaborated with Reza Safavi, associate professor in fine arts, Chris Cooney, assistant professor of management, and Maria Mayes, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship to develop the Business of Art (BOA) certificate program. The BOA is a 15-credit program where students learn entrepreneurial skills to market and sell their creative products.

“It’s wonderful not only to use our creativity to enrich our lives and the lives of others but to contribute to our livelihood,” she said.

Palmer embraces the purposeful connection with industry fostered at WSU. Her vision also includes connecting students and artists with public and corporate art project opportunities.

“I want to show that, from a small, rural town like Pullman, we can offer incredible opportunities to our students and be at the forefront of exciting, new ways of teaching and learning. The tendrils of our ideas can reach so far.”

Art as wellspring

“In the classroom, I want to shake things up, just like when I’m making my work. A sense of the uncomfortable is often what drives me,” Palmer said. “Not necessarily knowing what the piece will look like when I’m finished keeps me engaged. For example, the Concept Clay mural would never have been what it became if I wasn’t open to the journey.

“I want my students to have a sense of what it means to be creative, beyond being an artist. If they can leave our department knowing how to tap into their creative spirit and use it in any number of ways, I have done my job. With an arts degree, there’s a range of things you can do with your life and the arts can inform any career you choose.”

Top photo: Io Palmer and Manal Alharthi.

By AnneMarie Hunter, WSU Foundation