One of Carl Palazzolo's frequent themes, art collector David Rawle tells me, is memory and loss. You can see it clearly in the petal paintings — Palazzolo painted many images of petals falling from their stems, each one the slow, graceful death of a moment. "They are not only incredibly beautiful, but they're so evocative of ..." Rawle says, searching for words. "Not bittersweet — you know how beauty can make you feel somehow wistful, in a way?"
For Rawle, that feeling is especially poignant. These watercolors, which will be exhibited at the Gibbes Museum during the Spoleto Festival, along with many more from Rawle's collection, were painted at Rawle's home on Anson Street over the course of more than 20 years. Palazzolo and his friend and fellow artist, Stephen Mueller, would come to Charleston from New York each year for the festival, staying with Rawle and his wife Carol and painting the mornings away. Palazzolo still visits; Mueller passed away in 2011. And though the time the four of them spent together has come and gone, the memories are preserved in the artwork that fills Rawle's home.
Rawle has a long history with Spoleto. He moved to Charleston in the 1970s, shortly before the festival began in 1977, and the advertising agency he founded, Rawle Murdy, handled Spoleto's marketing from its inception until 1995. He knew Palazzolo from New York, where they'd met and become friends. The artist began making his yearly pilgrimages south in the 1980s, and in 1991 Mueller, whom Rawle had met through Palazzolo, started coming too.
"It became sort of like an art camp," Rawle says. "It was this wonderful way to strengthen a friendship, and also sort of tangentially be part of a wonderful creative process." Rawle would wake up early in the mornings and find Mueller already outside, painting in the garden. Later, Palazzolo would start working indoors and the two would chat through an open window. At the end of each festival, Mueller and Palazzolo would ask the Rawles to choose a painting to keep as a thank-you. And that is part of why this collection has so much heart. Each piece is a kind of remembrance for the Rawles, a specific Spoleto Festival visit given tangible form.
Charleston's bright light and (usually) pleasant early summer temperatures, not to mention the vibrant energy of the city during festival time, seemed to agree with both artists — as, indeed, it has with artists of all kinds for centuries. "Place has so much to do with how you feel and what you can create," Rawle says. "I think that we sometimes underestimate the power of place, and the power of this place. It isn't just about people creating things that reproduce [it], like a picture of the marsh. It's about people being inspired to create whatever it is they do."
For Mueller, that was working in vibrant, astounding color, which is no easy task for a watercolor painter. His works often feature abstract shapes or Eastern symbols, like a sitting Buddha or a mandala.
One stand-out piece, which was in Rawle's living room, is an image of several intensely hued, overlapping circles that seem to be casting a shadow. The background moves from purple to blue, and is done in a soft wash that contrasts with the clarity of the circles. It's the kind of painting that can suck you in. "I think they have a very powerful spiritual quality," Rawle says. "The color, the nuances, are really unbelievable. You stare at one of these and I promise you, it will take you somewhere else."
Palazzolo's work is more figurative, and employs additional techniques like collage to achieve a layered, textured effect. He's an oil painter as well as a watercolorist, so working in layers comes naturally to him. Since watercolors don't build the way oils do, collage is the best way to get that look. Rawle's garden, which is positively bursting with tropical flowers during the Spoleto season, was a great source of inspiration for Palazzolo. Rawle can even point out the live roses that started him on his falling petal paintings. "The rose petals started from these roses, the hibiscus, all the hydrangeas — you start to see the raw material," Rawle says.
Seeing how his friends translated that raw material into artistic masterpieces was a lesson in how to observe and appreciate the world around him. "It's not like they're coming out and painting [these flowers], but it can't help but inform the work," Rawle says. "Or going to the Spoleto events, you see someone dance beautifully, or a costume that falls a certain way, and most of us just let it pass us by, or we take it for granted. They record, and that inspires them. The challenge for us is for it to inspire all of us more. Because it's right here."
The exhibition at the Gibbes will be the first time Rawle has seen all the paintings together in one place. "I'm not sure how I'll react," he says. "It will just be so weird seeing them out of the house ... because each year I thought, well, I don't have room for anything more, and then you find the place for that year's pictures, and it's like you've always had them."
It's that obvious comfort with this huge, valuable collection, plus what he says next, that marks him as a true art lover and not just an art connoisseur. "I think that it's important to have a direct relationship with the art and not have something between you and it. If you think of art as "other," as opposed to "part," I think you miss a lot."
So while sharing these watercolors with a wider audience at the Gibbes will be an exciting development in the life of the collection, and a wonderful way to honor Mueller, the paintings' true home will always be in, well, a home. There's too much warmth within them to stay forever in the hallowed, but lonely, halls of a museum. As Rawle puts it, "These paintings are about love ... [that time] was just such fun. It was something that we really did think would last forever."