Wiili Armstrong's 'Painted Song'
During his prolific yet short artistic career, painter William
“Wiili” Armstrong created thousands of bright, colorful works, many of them painted on unusual
canvases, such as old mailboxes, saw blades and cardboard.
Armstrong would sell many of his paintings from his makeshift gallery, a bit of covered sidewalk in front of Boone Drug on King Street in downtown Boone. His customers ranged from Appalachian State University students who would spend a few dollars for a bit of original art to hang in their dorm rooms to serious collectors who sought Wiili’s larger and more original works.
Armstrong died in December 2003 at the age of 47 from heart problems complicated by other illnesses. He also suffered from numerous mental illnesses, including depression and bipolar disorder.
Despite his various illnesses, Armstrong was a prolific painter, as well as an accomplished poet and encyclopedic naturalist, who could name dozens of species of birds from their distinctive voices.
Armstrong’s paintings were eventually scattered like dandelion seeds in the wind, as student collectors moved from Boone, and other works were sold to out-of-town galleries and collectors.
A number of Armstrong’s paintings are now the basis of a new exhibit at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum (BRAHM), titled “The Painted Song: The Art of Wiili Armstrong.” The exhibit has its official grand opening from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, and will run through May 3, 2014.
“We have between 60 and 70 original pieces by Wiili,” said Allyson Teague, exhibits manager and assistant to the director at BRAHM. “Most of them are on loan from local collectors, with the biggest collection belonging to Tim Miller of Blowing Rock Frameworks and Gallery.”
Although Wiili was untrained as an artist and much of his life’s work has been described as “outsider art” or “primitive art,” he transcended those genres in a number of distinct ways.
First, whereas many outsider artists may have an only rudimentary knowledge of the plants and animals they are painting, Armstrong’s works display a naturalist’s keener eye. He knows what makes a robin different from a bluebird or a cardinal.
Second, many of Armstrong’s pieces show off a detailed knowledge of classic literature, particularly of the Bible and Greek mythology. Angels, Jesus, Adam and Eve all figure prominently in his works, as do mythical creatures and characters.
Armstrong also distinguishes himself with a strong color palette and bold brushstrokes, so much so that his work has been compared to that of Vincent Van Gogh.
Wiili Film and Discussion
On Wednesday, Nov. 13, BRAHM will host a film screening and roundtable discussion in conjunction with the new exhibit, “The Painted Song: The Art of Wiili Armstrong.”
The documentary film, “From Billy to Wiili: A Bipolar Artist’s Journey,” will be shown in the BRAHM Community Meeting Room (second floor), beginning at 6 p.m.
The film had its premiere at the Hickory Museum of Art on May 12, 2012.
Following the screening, a roundtable discussion will take place, including local art lovers who knew Wiili and art collectors who have been following his posthumous career trajectory.
BRAHM is located at 159 Chestnut St. in downtown Blowing Rock. For more information, call (828) 295-9099 or visit http://www.blowingrockmuseum.org.