JOEL ARMSTRONG: MEDIUMS AND VARIATIONS an interview with Joel Armstrong

Joel Armstrong is an artist who resides in Little Rock, Arkansas.  He crosses all genres and is very insightful and inventive  He’s also very prolific and has a lot to say about his process.  Here’s our cool chat… by the ArtBookGuy, Michael Corbin.

The wire process when using nickel/silver vs balers wire is completely different. It requires extreme accuracy to work with the nickel/silver and solder, to the point of having to tape down every piece of wire before I attach them.

The wire process when using nickel/silver vs balers wire is completely different. It requires extreme accuracy to work with the nickel/silver and solder, to the point of having to tape down every piece of wire before I attach them.

… I pray that I am able to continue working until the very end. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I weren’t creating. My mind never gives me time to relax …


MICHAEL: Hello Joel, Wow.  You're a prolific, versatile artist with quite a body of work. We'll get into it, but what has you inspired right now?

JOEL: Hi, Michael! Thanks for chatting with me. My latest inspiration has been scale - either really small, or monumental in scale. I teach illustration and drawing at John Brown University in Arkansas. A recent assignment was for the students to investigate the history of the Ex Libris tradition, and to create their own to put in their own books. My age is showing, they don't buy books, just order the Kindle versions. Back to the Ex Libris - it is not an ancient tradition, but is alive and well, with many sites from around the world devoted to current artists who create them. These mini-prints or drawings are so could easily pass them up, but once you begin to investigate, it is so easy to get caught in the minute detail and forget that they are meant to be less than 3" x 4".

My most recent exhibit was called “Rust & Gold” and consisted of 100 small paintings on paper that were created with a metallic paint, rust patina and a gold glaze. What was unique about this show, compared to my other work, was its immediate and intuitive nature. I came into it without a plan. I intended on just enjoying mark making, color combinations and texture.

Having spent so many years doing installation work, I always had an overall plan and direction that could take me many months if not years to complete. These paintings were done all within a week. My goal was 100 8.5" x 11" paintings, but I went far beyond that. Once I began investigating the pieces, I found that it was the minute details within the pieces that intrigued me the most. I began selectively cropping to a smaller format - no real reason why I ended up with 2.75" x 4.75" format, haha. I use to actively create artist trading cards online and they were all baseball card size art, so small wasn't a total surprise for me. 

The rust paint is what I consider part of my vocabulary as an artist. It generally refers to the past or some form of depression. I have been using rust on my wire work since I first began 15 years ago. It's a two-part rusting process, fairly simple, consisting of a water-based metal paint, and an  oxidizer that creates the rust patina, called “Instant Rust.” I have used it to rust things, but had not really experimented with using it as an actual painting medium. The gold glaze was a last minute selection from the hardware store. I also was surrounded with all of my other materials in my studio, ready to use if necessary. The rusts worked beautifully brushed on in a very fluid manner. Once the two part rusting had happened with these beautiful oranges, yellows and browns, I added the gold glaze. I was not ready for what came about, but the glaze made the colors illuminate even more. The gold contrast was beautiful. Something new to me, an introduction of a new vocabulary of renewal and redemption. Knowing my color theory well, I needed one more contrast to the rust and came up with a splatter of blue gouache. The pieces became other worldly, with each one as unique as the constellations.

Oh, I'm a Pinterest fanatic. My most recent boards are architecture and street art. I have been so impressed by all the unique buildings that I changed one of my Drawing I perspective projects to “design your ideal building.” It was a complete success. They didn't complain and they learned perspective at the same time. 

MICHAEL: You wire works strike me as a reinvention of Alexander Calder's work.  What inspires you to create such work?

JOEL: It's difficult to come out of the 70's and not be influenced by Calder. His wire work preceded me by a little, but I have always admired all of his work. When I began working with wire, it came out of my own challenge to my drawing graduate committee that drawings could be made of many 3D materials such as rocks, sticks, or wire, and still be considered drawings.

I used wire as a drawing medium, in a very two-dimensional way, wanting someone to have the feel that this drawing could have been peeled off the page, allowing you to hold it in your hands. I so loved all of Calder's 3D wire pieces, Mobiles, Stabile and even his Braniff Airline designs. I had grown up with the man as he influenced decades of work. I connected with him the most in his childlike wonder and ability to work in a studio that was in total disarray. Difference was - I worked in two dimensions. As was common with many of Calder's drawings, I began with the thought that everything must be drawn with one piece of wire, without stopping - one continuous contour line. I soon found out that I worked very linearly, but also very representationally. 

My drawings needed constant hammering of curves to get them to be exact, and all my joints needed to be clamped and hammered again, so they would stay secure. My wire drawings didn't have Calder's playfulness, but were quite stable. The playfulness came about was when I combined multiple drawings of clothing in a row and they would sway like clothes in a closet. I started out drawing clothing because I had been doing physical drawings of the insides of friends top drawers. Turns out, people don't want you to see, nor draw what they have in those drawers. They began offering things for me to draw, such as an old party dress, favorite vest, tuxedo or wedding dress and lots of high heel shoes!  I began selling these items in local galleries in Colorado, shoes and bras turned out to be my best sellers. 

My first installation was inspired by a day’s worth of laundry from our house; a family of five, two adults and three children. I spent months creating wire recreations of clothes that I remembered my kids wearing, along with the clothing my wife and I wore. All these ended up hanging between two T-bar clothes lines, weighted solidly to the ground. In the gallery stood the clothes line, ground covered with fresh sod, the sound effects of sprinklers “chinking,” lawns being mowed, kids playing and the humming of cicadas. You could feel the humidity of the soil, smell the fresh grass, hear the sounds and view rusted and skeletal images of the clothing. This was my first installation and the first time I had covered my wire with rust. In terms of airing dirty laundry, it was completely dry. The installation was a success.

MICHAEL: You're really all over the map.  I even love your paintings and figurative drawings.  How do you determine whether you're going to paint or draw or create wire sculptures on any given day?  Do you go by pure inspiration or start projects and see them through and then move onto another genre?

JOEL: I can't help but laugh, I know I am all over the place. When you asked if I finish one project and start a new one, actually, I always have several projects going at one time, always in some different media. Not using it as an excuse, but I've been diagnosed with ADD, as well as Bipolar Disorder. My mind rapidly cycles moods, as well as jumps from one idea to another. So, having several art pieces going at one time works well for me. I always have something my mind can handle at any given moment. Most recently, I was invited to create some artwork for an exhibition with the theme of birds. Years ago, I did a flock of (well, actually just 5) Canada Geese for a home in Colorado. I never got a great photo of them, so I thought trying it again would solve that problem. The original geese were rusted, but this time, I used nickle/silver wire and soldered all the joints, rather than bending and hammering. I was really excited with the results and it may lead to a new generation of silver wire work. 

The fact that I teach probably keeps me always active trying new things. I love to draw and spent years as an illustrator working with colored pencils. The figure has always been a favorite subject and I most always have something figurative going on. I got interested in assemblage as a way to enable me to continue telling stories with my work, but on a muchsmaller scale than installation. Collage is similar, but can be done on an even  smaller scale. I love working with wire and when not doing large pieces, I do little pieces that I consider doodles. They grew into an art form all their own when I began wrapping the 3D wire shapes with colored paper. I've created wall installations with the shapes, as well as a chandelier. Our house is full of artwork and the makings of artwork. I'm teaching a mixed-media class next semester and will be adding a section on cut paper. I will soon be cutting a lot of paper. 

MICHAEL: I always tell people that if they want to be more creative, they should surround themselves with original art.  It's like osmosis. Does your own work inspire you to create more? It must.

JOEL: Once again, I can't help but smile at the question. Our house is full of art! We may not be rich, but in terms of artwork, we are wealthy. I have spent my life trading others for art; students, friends, professors and I am proud of the collection. Each piece has a life and story of its own and I can't imagine life where these pieces are not a part of my life.

My wife is a graphic designer who makes jewelry and all three of our children are somehow involved in the arts because it has been a part of the life they have known. Since I went to graduate school in my 30's, and while the kids were young, they grew up being around artists, galleries, and helping me install artwork. Making art has always been a family affair. All of our kids have moved out of the house by now, but they have all left their own imprint in the house. Our youngest, Alyssa, created an installation of sorts in her bedroom (it's like a shrine), where she collected and installed pieces from the entire family that were important to her, along with so many beautiful pieces of her own, and favorites from my traded collection. The artwork is on the walls, ceilings, strung around the room on clotheslines, combined with quotes, journal pages, as well as photos of family and friends. This is the room my wife has chosen to create jewelry, but every time our daughter comes home, she re-edits, changes things around, adds new things from her life. It's hard to write and not tear up a bit. 

Back to your specific question, “Does my own work inspire me to create more?” Absolutely! I compare it to taking notes in class while in school. I may not have written every word down, but I remember doodling, and those are what would key me into the lecture and I would do well on tests. All my work keys me into a memory, and it makes me want to invest more time on the subject matter. It may not be the actual subject matter, but often times what was going on in my life while I was creating the work. The garage has mostly turned into the assemblage studio, surrounded with boxes of important things that somehow made an impact - enough so for me to hold on until I find the right combination of things to finish off the piece. The kitchen table is mostly for drawing and wire construction, whenever I can't find my table surface in the garage. Often times, I may have several drawings going at the same time, as well as a few assemblage pieces, so the table fills up fast. It's not unheard of for me to ask my wife to ‘pass the soldering iron’ once we are close to the end of a meal. 

MICHAEL: You're in Arkansas?  Little Rock?  Apart from the brand new Crystal Bridges Museum, Arkansas doesn't spring to mind when it comes to contemporary art.  

JOEL: I have to be careful on this one. It can definitely be said I am a fish out of water, but when I have had shows, they have been met with respect and much curiosity. Never much in the way of sales, but I do hear “that’s nice!” and “unique!” a lot. We are fortunate to have a very diverse art faculty (although not so much when one would view the majority of white male instructors) at John Brown University. Whether it is photography, cinema, graphic design, painting or drawing, everyone is breaking boundaries in their fields of study. In fact, just today, our University Gallery was voted runner up to Crystal Bridges in terms of best places to view artwork in Northwest Arkansas. Our curator has done an excellent job of bringing in a wide variety of artists and exhibitions that are quite a draw for such a small community. We are actually in the same county as Crystal Bridges, and it has made an impact on the whole area. The University of Arkansas also has a great reputation when it comes to contemporary art in the area. It's not that contemporary work is not being done or seen here, it's just that it is not exactly the hottest market for more contemporary work. 

In terms of my own art, people understand the idea of rusted wire, but they just can't understand why it's not barbed, and I rarely go a week without someone suggesting I create some in the shape of the state. All good intentioned and wishing there were something closer to their own taste and price range to buy. I've always told myself a different market would make all the difference in how someone understood me or my work. I have a large body of work, a large show history, but it's not until that single piece is in front of the right person, no matter what part of the country, that a connection will be made. Whether contemporary or homespun, my work will only go as far as the risks I am willing to make. I'm buying me some barbed wire tomorrow. 

MICHAEL: While your materials are humble, your work is very high-minded and conceptual.  A lesser artist might use wire to make items for craft stores or airport gift shops, but your work is museum material.  Why not just sell out?

JOEL: I have friends who do art fairs and they have wanted me to try them as well. In fact, my wife attempted to sell her jewelry that way a few times, and it's almost impossible to make a living that way. Actually, I don't offer things in a variety of colors, so if I'm asked if this comes in red, “No Ma'am, just rust” is about all I can say. I have only repeated the same objects one or two times since I started working with wire. I'm an old school, sci-fi nerd (Lost in Space era) and I did a series of ray-guns that were really popular. I sprayed them with metallic auto paints and they were kind of cool looking. That’s about as commercial as I ever got. I sold them all within a few days except one that I never showed that I'm afraid once I finished it, was a bit too phallic in shape. It never got sprayed, either. I just can't make myself repeat objects. 

Like you said, since my work is usually conceptual, there is a reason for every object I make. I did an installation called “Garage Sale” a few years back, and it took me more than three years to complete. I attended garage sales and bought specific pieces that the sellers had stories about. Stories on how the object once held a place of significance, and now is on sale for $1. I carefully recreated each of garage sale item out of wire and the rusting process creates what I consider to be a painting, but could also be a mono-print. I wrote up short prose about each item to tell its history and the garage sale item, wire piece and painting were all for sale during the exhibition and each had the stories attached.

I thought it would be clever to advertise in the garage sale section and bring the art crowd and garage sale merchants together for the opening. Wouldn't you know, all the garage sale items sold in the first few days, leaving my useless art hanging on the walls. My show had the purpose of showing the redemption process, taking something that had been given little value, and recreating it as a piece of artwork, thus extending the life, telling it's story, and allowing it to begin a new story. If I had just had a garage sale at my house with the items I had bought, it would have been more profitable.

MICHAEL: Given that, what do you think about the art world/art market and how they function?  What needs changing?

JOEL: As an installation artist, my work doesn't fit the mold for any commercial gallery, so most of my exhibitions have been in art and performance centers, non-commercial galleries, conferences, and University settings. Due to size involved, I usually have to avoid shipping, so the closer to home, the better. Shipping and traveling is never part of the “invitation” to exhibit, so I have sought out grant money to be able to travel with my work. I've learned that it is always best for me to be in charge of the installation. Also, I have been disappointed so many times when installation is out of my control. I exhibited one of my interactive installations at a typography conference in London. Although the University provided grant money to cover the shipping, as well as my flights, it was quite an adventure to get it past customs, get it installed on time, and taken down and re-crated at the end of the week. Living in Arkansas, I have had several opportunities to exhibit my installations. However, when I lived in Colorado, the opportunities were always available, so being in the right market is very important.

I have a good friend who came to the conclusion that his work would translate well to wire. He lives in northern California, and his wire work took off like crazy. He has had so many exhibitions of this new work, in less than a year. I must admit, the subject matter is much more sensual than mine has ever been, and his work did translate well to wire. If there were something I would change about the system, it really comes down to my own insecurities and jealousies when I see someone else succeed at something that I have been doing for years, and all of a sudden in the hands of someone else, wire becomes a new and unique form of art making. Location, connections, repeat buyers, and encouraging galleries all play a role in that success. I can only blame myself for that kind of exposure never happening with my own work. 

MICHAEL: Yeah, but Joel, you're still alive which means you still have time to get to where you want to be.  For all of his fame and success, my guess is Picasso would give it all up to be alive. Finally, what do you want people to see when they look at your work?  Is there a message you want to leave with people after you're gone?                            

JOEL: One thing’s for certain, giving up is not in my nature and I'm always excited to try new things. I pray that I am able to continue working until the very end. I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I weren't creating. My mind never gives me time to relax. I'm always on to the next thing, many times not knowing what that is or will be. I think I spoke earlier in our conversation about the freedom I felt while working on a recent Rust & Gold exhibition. The thrill of doing the work was that there wasn't a preset plan, just the knowledge that I wanted to make marks onto paper. I can't forget those simple joys within my life as an artist, and as you say, ‘I'm still alive.’ 

When viewing my work, I want people to see someone whose life is in constant motion and a creative thinker. I see connections between all the various mediums and variations on a theme, and I hope that comes across. I want people to see someone who is passionate about life and its struggles and someone who desires to communicate and interact. If people are able to pick up on my sense of humor on some level, in spite of the deep thinking that comes with depression, there is also joy in my life. I hope the work comes across as playful, touchable and approachable. 

After I'm gone, I hope there are still records that will show me as an artist who wasn't afraid to deal with tough and personal subject matter intended to reach others who may have been experiencing the same thing. Things I’ve created haven’t always pretty, but they are intricate and well thought out. Sometimes I create just for the joy of creation and I just want to share that excitement. I want to be remembered as someone who smiled, laughed to the point of tears, cried, and was deeply empathetic to his fellow man. And, of course, someone who made a heck of a lot of art. 

MICHAEL: Thanks Joel.  Nice chat.

JOEL: Thank you Michael. It was a pleasure talking!