A New Unicorn

Ryan Thomas-Palmer dives into her art, focusing on her newest series and how it has influenced her high school experience.


She’s such a doll — Doll Face 5

Ryan Thomas-Palmer’s room is an art gallery. Framed pieces, created by her and those close to her, adorn her wall and art supplies are scattered around her room. This is nothing; right next door is her art studio, which was created with love and care — Thomas-Palmer made it with her own hands, along with the help of her father. Thomas-Palmer spends hours drawing in this space, painstakingly working with charcoal and graphite to create a perfect contrast between her white canvas and the darkness of her tools.

Until she was five years old, Thomas-Palmer refused to draw, sitting out as her sister colored in picture after picture. She couldn’t figure out how to draw within the lines, so what was the point? When her mom handed her an outline of a unicorn and she was able to color it in “relatively good,”​ Thomas-Palmer was ecstatic. She made her mom go out and buy her a pink Crayola marker so she could color in the unicorn over and over again. Now, Thomas-Palmer is almost 18 years old and has finished her first major art series, “Doll Face.” The last drawing in the series is titled, “My Unicorn.”


Thomas-Palmer, a senior at CHS, started “Doll Face” in the summer of 2020, right in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It started out as her desire to draw “something creepy” — she borrowed weathered dolls from her neighbor and spent hours taking photographs of them in her garage. It took her a couple months to feel motivated, but soon she started her first drawing of a doll, named “Doll Face 1.” Thomas-Palmer feels connected to the dolls that she draws, describing them almost as her friends.

Thomas-Palmer still wasn’t sure where she was going with the project when she started “Doll Face 2.” While drawing, she wasn’t sure how the piece would turn out — “2” required a dark background and she was nervous to approach that. But she pushed through her fear and completed the drawing. After “2,” her confidence increased.


Scribble Creatures

When she started “Doll Face 3,” Thomas-Palmer simply loved the reference photograph she was using. But as she went on, she realized that “3” had a deeper meaning — connecting both to living through the COVID-19 pandemic as a teenager and to what she refers to as “our generation’s trauma,” including the prevalence of technology and the aftereffects of 9/11. Thomas-Palmer drew on her own experience as a teenager forging her own path while dealing with what felt like the world imploding. Drawing from art like “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, which is about a midlife crisis, Thomas-Palmer hid seven creatures within “3” that represented what she and others around her were going through.

“Doll Face 3” was a catalyst; the rest of the Doll Face series is rooted in topics that Thomas-Palmer thinks about daily. She dove in to queer racism in “Doll Face 4,” which she titled “William’s Doll,” which depicts a young Black boy playing with a doll, a shadow made of slurs looming over him. She spoke of her own experiences as a woman by creating a collage of dolls interspersed with things she and her friends, who identify as women, have been called by men.

“I wanted [the drawing] to show how women are treated as objects and that’s exactly what a doll is,” Thomas-Palmer said. “[It is] an object that is used as entertainment. It’s just a toy.”

Art was not always Thomas-Palmer’s whole world. From ages five to 12, Thomas-Palmer’s life was defined by one thing: gymnastics. She lived at the gym, spending her entire week learning new tumbles and flips. But in the summer before seventh grade, she got life-changing news — for much of her gymnastics career, she had been putting too much impact on her elbow joint, causing the bone to slowly shatter. Thomas-Palmer spent the majority of her seventh-grade year with half of her body in a cast, after two surgeries to address her elbow joint. She was lost.

“My entire personality and identity was gymnastics,” Thomas-Palmer said. “And then that just stopped.”
Without gymnastics, Thomas-Palmer found herself inundated with time, which she used to return to one of her favorite pastimes as a child: art. She had spent seventh grade trying to figure out what else she liked and was good at besides gymnastics, and when she began drawing, she knew she’d found it. At the end of the year, Thomas-Palmer started using the grid system, which allows artists to draw faces more accurately, and she attended art classes at Rudolf Steiner school.

“I’ve found the one thing that I’m really good at and I found it [because] I didn’t have anything anymore,” Thomas-Palmer said. “I just stuck with art. It helps me ground myself. It’s like meditation for me.”

Art is not just something that Thomas-Palmer does; in many ways, it informs her life and relationships, and how she views the world around her. Her relationship with her best friend, Rosie Mellor, is built on their mutual love and appreciation for art. Although Thomas-Palmer believes that she would still be friends with Mellor without art, she has noticed that drawing and painting has been prevalent in their lives since they became friends in elementary school. Throughout middle school and high school, Thomas-Palmer and Mellor have taken art classes together, and when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, they continued to draw together by going to the woods and doing observational drawings. When Thomas-Palmer finishes a piece, she always asks her friend for feedback.

“I’ll always go to her,” Thomas-Palmer said. “She was the first person to see ‘Doll Face 6’ all done.”

My Unicorn — Doll Face 6

“Doll Face 6” is the last piece in the Doll Face series. Thomas-Palmer spent 163 hours on it — the longest she has ever spent on a drawing. It is full of references to her life, with a drawing of her as a toddler, and all five former dolls are featured in some way, shape or form. For example, the drawing contains lots of lace, which connects to the doll featured in “Doll Face 1.” Hidden in a cuckoo clock, near the back of the painting, is a unicorn. “Doll Face 6,” the most detailed piece that Thomas-Palmer has ever drawn, and the rest of her series can all be drawn back to when she was five years old and obsessively coloring in a unicorn outline.

As she goes forward in life, the thought of giving up art has never crossed Thomas-Palmer’s mind. In her ideal world, she can support herself with her art, without having to take commissions or create things that she is not passionate about. But even if the ideal world doesn’t come about, Thomas-Palmer will always be an artist at heart.