Chester native sculpts the Roosevelts

Sculptor Carolyn Palmer creates 'touchable' busts for FDR museum and library in Hyde Park


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  • Sculptor Carolyn Palmer with her bust of Eleanor Roosevelt.





By Kristine Coulter

— A Chester native created "touchable" bronze busts of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt unveiled last week at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Historic Site in Hyde Park on Nov. 17.

“I captured them at the years of their lives where they would want to be remembered by,” said the sculptor, Carolyn Palmer. She was born and raised in Chester, attending St. Columba Grammar school and John S. Burke High School. After graduating from Nazareth College in Rochester, she went on to study art in Spain, France, Italy and the United States.

Palmer used pictures of the Roosevelts to capture their essence. She tilted the 32nd president’s head a little to capture his early White House years. His tie pulls away a little from his shirt, like the president would have worn it in life.

And while Eleanor Roosevelt called herself an "ugly duckling," the artist takes a much different view.

“I found her to be absolutely beautiful, her inner beauty,” said Palmer of the former First Lady. “I wanted to portray her most for her inner beauty to come through.”

An inspired idea

Lynn Bassanese, the library’s acting director, recalled how the idea of the sculptures began.

“It’s a real Roosevelt story,” she said.

She received a call from former New York State Senator for the Syracuse area, Tarky Lombardi Jr. Bassanese listened to him patiently, then asked if the sculptor would consider doing an Eleanor sculpture to go with the Franklin one.

“We now have two of the finest pieces of sculpture,” Bassanese said.

Lombardi said Palmer captured the Roosevelts in these two pieces.

"When you look at them, they talk to you,” he said. He admired the way they appear to be smiling when viewed from some angles, and serious when viewed from others.

“They’re just so alive,” Lombardi said. “It’s like she found photographs, never seen before, and you’re experiencing them for the first time.”

The sculptures were meant to be touched. Visitors can stroke the three strands of pearls Mrs. Roosevelt was know for wearing. They can see feel FDR's glasses. Palmer even put "a little more texture in the clothing," said Bassanese.

The works will be placed on low pedestals so that visitors in wheelchairs have easy access.

“We do want these to be touchable,” Bassanese. "We’re trying to make our new museum as accessible as possible. They really symbolize our new museum. They’re fresh and accessible."

Palmer said making the sculptures touchable “is what really made them come to life.”

Her works are in both public and private collections. In Syracuse is a larger-than-life Thomas Jefferson created by Palmer for the Jefferson Center Lobby. The Sanford Orlando Airport in Florida acquired Palmer’s Wright Brothers sculpture for the airport lobby. Scranton Mayor Christopher Doherty commissioned Palmer to create works of Vice President Joe Biden and the late Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey for Scranton Park.

The sculptures will be placed in the lobby of the Henry A. Wallace Center then moved to their permanent location, in the main lobby of the library and museum, when renovations are completed next year. The opening date is June 30, 2013.

FDR Museum officials estimate that nearly 100,000 visitors will see the sculptures yearly.

“We’re trying to reach a new generation of people," said Bassanese. "Starting out with these two images is the best way to start.”

Editor’s note: An error in the original article about the rights to the Wright Brothers sculpture has been corrected here.

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