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Romanian adoptee puts pedal to metal with folk art cars

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

Andrei Palmer loves cars as much as any all-American guy. Except the 23-year-old Stone Mountain resident, who was adopted from Romania at age 6, brings a bit of an outsider’s perspective to the infatuation.

Chris Dunn cdunn@ajc.com
Andrei Palmer, 23, holds up his model-car version of the modified DeLorean in the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy in the PureFUN! warehouse where he works in Lawrenceville. Palmer, who was adopted from a Romanian orphanage by his American parents, will debut his cars at Folk Fest in Norcross this weekend.

He’s an automaker of a sort – of a folk art sort, that is. Palmer builds scratch-model cars, handmade creations so elaborate that he and his proud parents, Tim and Cathy Palmer, have been encouraged to give them their first public exhibit this weekend. The setting will be Folk Fest, the annual show and sale of self-taught art at North Atlanta Trade Center in Norcross.

First, the Palmers had to confirm that Andrei’s works could even be classified as folk, which they did by hauling two of them plus a photo album of others to Folk Fest last year. Organizers and exhibitors loved them; one artist insisted on buying one.

But Palmer is an outsider in ways other than art. He spent his first six years in a series of Romanian orphanages, enduring episodes of abuse and neglect. That led to developmental delays that he’s fought his way through since his 1993 adoption. Part of the healing has come through an artistic bent that his parents recognized early, even as Andrei’s brain began its slow, continuing recovery from what they believe is post-institutionalization syndrome.

“He just sees things differently than others,” says his mom, a Christian author who runs the Refugee Sewing Society, which teaches seamstress, knitting and jewelry-making skills to immigrants from war-torn countries, at the Northlake Church of Christ in Tucker. “He’s always been interested in how things fit together.”

Palmer, who graduated from high school in Missouri not long before the family moved here in 2008, keeps his eyes peeled on traffic when his dad drives him to their shared workplace, PureFUN, a Lawrenceville child-care center supplier.

“I’m a social guy,” said the talkative artist, who lives and makes his pieces in an apartment adjoining his parents’ place, “but sometimes I like to stay quiet and look out the window and notice things about cars that others might not.”

From his observations, not from car magazines or another reference source, he draws detailed, accurate sketches on cardboard sheets he recycles from orange juice pallets at his warehouse job. The cardboard forms the frame on which he attaches “parts” crafted from dowel rods, aluminum-coated paper, chicken wire, blister-packaging plastic, fabric, toy car wheels and spray paint. The vehicles, typically 2 to 3 feet long, have working lights wired to batteries usually hidden in the trunks or under the hoods.

Palmer prefers classic cars to late-model ones, explaining, “Even when they’re old and rusty, they still look good. That’s because they were built with care.”

His creations include a 1965 Chevy Camaro, a 1978 Cadillac DeVille, a 1985 yellow school bus, an International cement mixer and a DeLorean “Time Machine” from the movie “Back to the Future.”

They take a couple to a few weeks to produce, and Palmer has finished nearly 80 of them, wearing out glue guns while listening to ’80s rock.

The Palmers plan to display 25 to 30 cars at Folk Fest, a few favorites marked “Not for Sale.” Andrei is excited about the prospect of his first public showing, and his parents have primed the pump by creating a Web site (http://andreisautos.webs.com) and getting business cards printed. But their son goes through bouts of ambivalence about selling them (in the $100 range) and is simultaneously worried he may not have enough to meet demand.

“I wonder what happens if I sell all the cars right away – then what do I do?” he fretted last weekend, sinking into the sofa in his parents’ living room.

“That’s a good problem to have, Andrei,” his mom responded gently. “Then we’ll take orders.”

Event preview

Folk Fest 2010

Show featuring more than 100 exhibitors, 5-10 p.m. Friday. $15 (includes T-shirt and weekend re-admission). 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. $7 each day. Children 16 and under, free. North Atlanta Trade Center, 1700 Jeurgens Court, Norcross (follow signs off I-85 at Indian Trail Road/exit 101). 770-532-1115, www.slotinfolkart.com.

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