Quite a while ago, Joel Palmer’s group of friends gave him the nickname “Swamp Bear.” Although time’s passing has obscured the origin of the name, Palmer embraced it back then and in the past few years he’s really run with it, making the moniker into his brand and business: Swamp Bear Art.
Browns Flat, a picturesque community in Kings County, New Brunswick, is where the magic happens: Palmer’s home and workshop are nestled between a winding road, a marsh, and the forest where he finds the logs that will eventually become artworks.
Palmer uses multiple chainsaws of various sizes to bring artwork both functional and purely aesthetic out of wood.
My partner Alex and I drove to meet Palmer one late-October morning to interview him on camera for a short documentary for CBC Arts. When we pulled up, Palmer was in the midst of work on a piece — a dancing First Nations chief in full regalia — wearing his protective goggles and ear muffs. We could see lots of artwork on display in his yard, which serves as a sort of gallery for his finished and unfinished projects. He showed us around and told us about a few of the pieces: what inspired it, who commissioned it, where it’s going when it’s done.
“I just finished a project for a gentleman up north; I did six totem poles for his lodge, and each of them represented his grandkids,” Palmer told us. “To be able to do a piece like that — that was a great honour. It’s something that’s going to mean a lot to his family.”
When you see what he can do, it’s hard to believe Palmer originally purchased a chainsaw just to cut firewood to heat his home. His work — and the confident, skilled way he carries it out — gives the impression of a longtime master who’s perfected his craft. From a towering unicorn to Halloween jack-o-lanterns to the bust of a bald eagle, each disparate item has that distinct “Swamp Bear” look to it. I asked him when he realized he could take his hobby to the next level.
“The same year I realized I wanted to become a sculptor and be a professional at it as an artist, I entered a competition here for Atlantic Canada, and I ended up getting first place,” he said. “It encouraged me and made me realize that this is probably something that I should pursue in life.”
While Swamp Bear Art is an independent business, Palmer says it’s a performance art as well.
“Part of what I do is going to events, putting on demonstrations. It could be a little one-hour quick carve, it might even be a five- or ten-minute carving — something that I just blast out in a few minutes.
“I was in Germany this past year at an international carving event,” he added as an example. “There were people from all over that attended — stuff like that brings in huge crowds, so what I do is definitely an entertainment form.”
Doing what you love and getting paid for it is an enviable position to be in. Palmer claims he’s the type who’s bad with schedules an organization, but that that personality type actually complements the kind of work he does.
“I can work at my own pace. If I have work around the house I need to do in the morning, I can do that and not feel like I have to be at work right away; mind you I can work into the evenings or all through the weekend. There’s not a set schedule, but I work at it daily.”
Palmer, a hunter, fed us some hearty stew he’d made with moose meat — it hit the spot on that chilly fall day. His living room is decorated with antlers, snowshoes, feathers, paintings depicting outdoor landscapes, wooden sculptures — he’s brought nature inside. On a standing desk next to a picture window, he had a large sketchbook of rough plans for his work.
“Since I was a child I was always very creative, very artistic, and so when I found this art form I basically re-routed myself back to who I really was at the beginning, which was an artist, and a bit of a crazy, outgoing, free-spirited person,” he said, laughing.
Custom carvings and woodwork are in high demand in New Brunswick, it seems. On his kitchen table Palmer had a list of upcoming projects, with estimated prices and time frames, and clients who don’t mind reimbursing him for the excellent work he does. Customers come to him with an eclectic mix of requests that he can fulfill, according to his website: “…everything from architectural detailing, sculptures for your home or business, larger-than-life insects, custom beer taps, or a rustic sign for the cabin.”
Palmer said getting his work out there at local markets was a great way to promote himself, and one thing led to another, and he ended up making more money through art than through his part-time day jobs.
“I went to school and studied parks and forestry and for the longest time I couldn’t find work in that field. It was frustrating for me because I’d spent all this money on my education, hoping that I could get a job in that field, and there just weren’t jobs. They were actually losing jobs, like they are in many fields. I realized I can’t really rely on the economy and someone else’s business to provide for me in my life.”
Although Palmer is a businessman and entrepreneur, he’s clearly an idiosyncratic kind of person at heart, and his outlook on the role of the artist comes from that unique balance of traits.
“As an artist, that’s our job — to be weird and to create weird things, to create different things to tell stories in different ways.”