Childhood always leaves its mark. For Dayton, Ohio born-and-based artist Zachary Armstrong, it’s the driving force of his work. In familiar shades, primary colors evoking youth, Armstrong sketches and paints figures that wouldn’t seem out of place on the walls of an elementary school classroom. But these are childish scrawls made by a hand informed by a wiser, older mind. Each piece, far more layered and complex than the simple lines might lead one to believe, is an attempt to recreate a precious ecosystem of optimism and limitlessness. Rules need not apply.
Armstrong, for his part, is set on creating art on his own terms. The self-taught 30-year-old works out of an enviously large studio, far removed from the LA and NYC scenes. From that distance, he is free to fully invest in his work and, incidentally, a childhood lived in real-time: his son’s. Between digging through the archives of his own past and watching his child navigate the mores of youth, Armstrong creates pieces that remind us that every day is an opportunity to retrace the steps that took us towards the road we are on today. In repetition, knowledge. Here, we talk to Armstrong about Agnes Martin, burned-out nail guns, and the fondest memories of a young artist.
What did you do before you became a full-time artist?
Before I could make a living from artwork, I worked random construction jobs.
What are the most important things in your studio?
Hot plate for encaustic, an air compressor, pencils, and a TV.
What item in your studio gets the most use/abuse?
Nail guns and staple guns. Somehow we go through them like crazy. Finish nailers generally last two months before the graveyard.
What’s a typical day of yours like, from start to finish?
If I have my son, I start the day pretty early, make him breakfast, take him to school. Coffee shop, then the studio. Usually clean up and draw, email for a bit before I get into a groove. Sometimes starting a painting is really intimidating, so I procrastinate by working on sculpture stuff or working in the wood room. Usually I stay until at least midnight, stop by my fave grocery store on the way home for something to eat. Read and watch Law & Order ‘til I fall asleep.
Do you listen to music while you work?
I listen to a lot of music and watch a lot of TV while working. Been listening to a lot of Willie Nelson & T-Pain lately. When music gets old, I watch movies–anything from documentaries to cheesy Schwarzenegger flicks. I just have to have noise around me.
Some of your work uses found vintage ephemera. What’s the process in finding these pieces?
A lot of the “vintage ephemera” I find comes from my own family–a lot of old family photos and drawings from me and my brother’s childhood. Thank god my parents kept all of our drawings.
Is the stick figure that reappears in much of your work one particular protagonist or do you view them as many different characters?
The stick figure you’re talking about is a drawing I did of myself when I was about 5, so it’s just one particular figure. I repeat these old drawings so much just to get everything I can from them–learn about all the lines that make them up, learn about painting, the process, all the different working methods that encaustic has to offer. I could go on and on about why I repeat these images and why they’re so important to me and my practice.
What informs your style of drawing?
The freedom and speed that kids draw at. By slowing it down with oil and wax, you really pay attention to everything that makes up the beautiful way a kid sits down and draws.
What’s the Ohio art scene like? Is there a strong community there?
Not really an art scene or community in Ohio at all. Pretty quiet and lonely, really. Nobody to talk about work or art with unless you import some friends for a few weeks to work with ya.
What is the value in distancing yourself from the LA and NYC scenes?
I love NYC and LA very much. I’m in one or the other at least once a month. I’d love to live full-time in one or the other, mainly just to be around my friends, but as long as my little boy is in school, I’ll stay here in Dayton. It’s good and bad–nothing to do but work, so I’m really productive here. No nightlife or girls to get you in trouble, and it’s so insanely cheap. You can have a nice house and a dream studio fairly easily. It would be impossible to have all this in NYC. My studio is 4,500 square feet. So, in a lot of ways, I’m super spoiled here. It just gets lonely. You gotta get out at least once a month or you’ll lose it.
Do you find childhood to be an inexhaustible mine for inspiration?
Childhood is definitely a big inspiration. I was a kid when I had a kid, so, in a way, I’ve never escaped childhood. It’s all I know. I’m very familiar with it. I think every artist goes back to some kind of nostalgia, so what I’m doing really isn’t that unusual at all. Hopefully it just looks and feels a lil’ different.
What do you remember most about your own childhood?
I remember my own childhood very clearly. It was a very happy time–aside from school. I hated every second of school. I have an amazing friend, Keith Rankin, who is an incredibly talented artist. We grew up drawing together for the first ten years. My dad is an art teacher and would bring us home giant rolls of paper, tons of clay, and fancy colored pencils/pastels. It was great, the salad years. I remember my lil’ sister being born when I was in the first grade. I was obsessed. Seeing her grow up was a very happy memory.
So your parents were invested in the arts when you were growing up?
As I said, my dad is an art teacher. Sculpture and ceramics. He taught me at a very young age how important art is to the world, exposed me to a lot of books and stories about artists. Picasso, in particular, was always a favorite of both of ours. My mom was a social worker, dealing with kids. So, in a lot of ways, I’m totally a product of my parents. I deal with art and kids nonstop.
What’s the most interesting trend happening in art right now?
I’m not sure what the most interesting trend in art is right now. Michael E. Smith? I guess that’s not a trend, but he’s one of the most interesting, that’s for sure. I know what the most uninteresting trend is: waaaay too many people are taking the easy way out with the damn airbrush and stitched-together canvases. A few can work with those tools unbelievably well, but it opened up a can of worms for a lot of crap.
What are you currently working on?
I just finished a series of paintings for a show in Berlin. Glad it’s over. I’m really anxious to work on a lot of smaller drawings and these big lamp sculptures. Also working on a lot of really large paintings that take forever. It’s nice kinda taking my time with the big ones.
What was the most recent book, film, or piece of art to inspire you?
Best book I’ve read in a while is this new Agnes Martin biography that came out. Really made me realize the beauty of working in a solitude environment. I wish I could name a good film but my taste in movies has dropped drastically in the last few years. Embarrassing. Inspiring piece of art would probably be Elizabeth Jaeger’s dog sculptures. I love the way they look, and I can’t get the idea of a pretty woman making a big mess fine-tuning plaster outta my head. Like a young, female Gober.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Best piece of advice? Probably from my mom when I was very young: “Who cares what people think?”
Photos by Tyler Macko