Around the turn of the millennium, street artist William "Willi" Armstrong was a common sight in downtown Boone.
For approximately four years, 1999-2003, the prolific painter would set up shop on the sidewalks of downtown Boone, usually in front of Boone Drug. There he would sell his paintings to passersby, tourists and Appalachian State University students, some of them for much less than what he was selling them for at a few High Country art galleries.
"I used to try to talk business with him," recalled Maria Hyde, owner of Alta Vista Gallery in Blowing Rock. "I'd say, 'Now, Willi, you have to price your artwork on the street close to what we're charging in the gallery or you'll never sell anything here."
Hyde was interviewed last week by the documentary film team of L.G. Walker and Dr. Dan Morrill. Morrill teaches history at UNC-Charlotte, and Walker is a collector of Armstrong's art and knew Willi when he was a Boone street artist.
Armstrong died late in 2003 of heart failure at the age of 47.
"He was found dead in his studio, but no one was sure what day he had died," Walker said. "His mother told authorities that she didn't want him dying on Christmas, and she didn't want it to be on Dec. 26, because that was her wedding anniversary."
Consequently, when the death notice came through the mortuary service about Armstrong's death, it was officially listed as being on December 27.
For Walker and Morrill's documentary, they are hoping to interview several people in the High Country, such as Hyde, who knew Willi. They have previously interviewed Tim Miller of Blowing Rock Frameworks and Gallery, another curator who carried Willi's work while he was alive. Both Miller and Hyde have seen renewed interest in Willi's work in recent years.
"It's amazing to me that eight years after his death, I still have people come into the studio and ask me if I have any artwork by Willi," Hyde said.
One aspect that Walker and Morrill hope to shed light on is Armstrong's mental health. Armstrong was estranged from his family when he arrived in Boone and had not seen his parents or sisters in years.
"Through interviewing his family, we can tell that there are several instances of mental health issues in the male members of his dad's side of the family," Walker said. "His dad is in his 80s and still works fulltime as a country veterinarian. Willi showed some of those same 'workaholic' symptoms when he would paint for days at a time."
It is estimated that Willi painted more than 1,000 pieces in his lifetime, many of them on found objects, such as cardboard boxes and discarded cupboard doors. His subject matter included birds, animals, angels, women and scenes from the Bible.
Walker and Morrill hope to find a home for their finished documentary on Willi Armstrong on UNC-TV or another television network.