Jim Armstrong was a rare and wonderful art instructor and mentor. It was amazing to watch him work with 20-30 students crowded into his Thursday morning classes. He would move from 1 student to the next helping each of us improve whatever we were working on. One student might be painting a colorful abstract in oil, the next a child’s portrait in watercolor, then a pastel landscape, then a collage – and each piece of art was approached with a fresh eye – never allowing his response to one piece to color his response to the next piece. It was an inspiring talent.
Jim was patient, very gentle and encouraging with beginners, but once he got to know you he would push you to exceed your own expectations.
Jim’s critique comments could be sharp-edged and funny without ever being discouraging. “What’s this elephant doing? (it was a supposed to be a rock), why are there sheep in the sky? (clouds), why is this tree here? (you’d better not say ‘because it was there in the scene’ – he would tell you a feature should only be included if it helps the composition!),
Many of his comments to those of us who had worked with him the longest could be caustically funny, and we would listen for them as he moved through the class: “looks like rats crossing a stream (boulders), “ lose the stump!”, “put it away-that’s as good as its going to get”, “got some gesso?”, “I’d be hesitant to sign that if I were you”, “it looks like bouillabaisse”. But after any of these comments (delivered with a glint in his eye), he would then help us to improve, or learn from, the piece we were working on. Thus the classroom was often filled with laughter. He took us seriously, but he kept us from taking ourselves too seriously and this made us more open to new ways of painting and creating.
If one of us disagreed and wanted to retain some feature Jim thought should be removed, he would just have us ‘soften’ or ‘lighten’ the feature – again and again and again – until it was gone; at which point we usually realized he had been right all along.
One thing Jim did not do – he never taught any of us to paint like he did. With most instructors students end up painting like the teacher. Jim helped each student improve along the path the student had chosen. If there was a direction he moved us, it was to become looser and more comfortable in our painting. Over time our brushes got larger and we spent less time on small details.
Jim was a strong proponent for art in our community for many years. He helped found the SB Art Institute in 1964, was the president of the SB Art Association in 1966, and he taught in the Adult Ed program of SBCC for nearly 40 years. Calmly and quietly helping many, many students improve.
Finally, it must be remembered that we have not only lost a great teacher and advocate for good art; we have lost a good friend. Jim was a very private person, but the more time we spent with him, the more we realized how caring he was and how much we cared about him.
On behalf of many of his students; Thank You, Jim. We will miss you.
Bob Rowley, John Coie, Ann Sanders, Gerry Winant, B.J.Stapen, and Sally Hamilton