Usually he’s thinking big. In feet, not inches.

Usually he’s applying layers of oil and acrylic paint to canvas, working in his numbers and objects.

Carl Palazzolo is thinking of the past, of loss, of the people he has loved.

Typically he is naming his colorful, textured paintings in ways that evoke memory: “Tears of Things,” “Dache,” “Opera.”

But when he is in Charleston each spring, something mysterious happens. A quietude and intimacy takes over. The gestures are smaller. The feelings more concentrated.

The materials change, too. Palazzolo gives up the big canvases and uses paper instead; he trades oil for watercolor.

For this is a different sort of light he is capturing, a different mood, a different place.

Only the memories are the same.

Sentimental journey

Nearly 20 Charleston springs and Spoleto Festivals have passed since Palazzolo began making his small watercolors. For years, he came with his friend and fellow artist Stephen Mueller.

The two men would stay with David and Carol Rawle downtown and marvel at the flora flourishing in the garden, and at the sun rolling overhead, casting its enchanted light upon the audacious greenery.

Mueller was painting watercolors, too, pleasing expressions of color and form, toned down, graceful versions of his big, bold Color Field acrylics. He died in 2011, at 63, leaving Palazzolo with more memories and more loss and more reason to paint fragrances and the tears of things.

A selection of their watercolors is on view at the Gibbes Museum of Art until Sept. 15. The exhibition, co-sponsored by the Spoleto Festival, is wholly appropriate.

“Watercolor is certainly an important part of the Charleston Renaissance (which dates to the first half of the 20th century), particularly since one of its leaders, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, is best known for her remarkable watercolor paintings of the Charleston landscape,” said Pam Wall, curator of exhibitions at the Gibbes Museum.

“I think Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry is an area that lends itself to watercolor due to the lush landscape and the atmosphere,” she said. “As Carl has said, the light is just different in Charleston.”

After Mueller’s death, Palazzolo inherited a paint-stained drop cloth that he mounted on a panel and used as a canvas. In this way he merged his art with Mueller’s spirit. In this way he memorialized 44 years of friendship.

Palazzolo is a sentimental man. He mourns by painting. He remembers in color.

Capturing Charleston

Jasper Johns was an early influence. So was Cy Twombly. Whereas Johns used numbers to empty his pictures of content and achieve something essentially abstract, Palazzolo has imbued numbers with specific meaning and direct references to the people in his life, he said.

Other elements in his art symbolize certain moments, memories, people such as rose petals, light bulbs, leaves or fruit.

“It makes loss concrete,” he said. And it transforms it into a visual poetry.

He’s also been moved by Italian Neo-realist cinema, and especially the actress Anna Magnani.

Years ago, Palazzolo attended a Magnani festival at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and was mesmerized by her naturalism, stunned by her expressive eyes, moved by her humanity and her own experiences of loss.

Magnani’s eyes have found their way into his art.

But mostly it’s Charleston and the Spoleto Festival that’s reflected in these works.

“There is a certain lushness to Charleston during Spoleto that both Carl and Stephen have masterfully captured,” Wall said. “And the watercolors capture a sense of energy that buzzes through the city during the festival. It truly is a magical time of year.”

Return to respite

When he’s in New York, or Houston (where he’s now based), Palazzolo works on his large canvases with intensity.

Painting is full of angst and drama, he said. But in Charleston, he relaxes, breathes, looks about, unwinds. His watercolors are carefree, reflecting the magic of this respite, he said.

He will keep coming. Alone. With only the memory of Mueller coloring his mind and causing sparks of creativity.

He will stay with his friends, the Rawles. He will pay attention to the flowers and shrubs and vines and trees. He will watch the sun in its daily trek across the sky. He will see and remember.

And he will open his traveling watercolor kit.

And he will paint.

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