Drawn to Stories: Joel Armstrong’s Wire Drawings

From cave walls to Picasso, the medium of drawing is possibly the oldest, most immediate and most universal art form. But what is a drawing? Does a drawing have to be on paper? Does it have to be on anything at all? If you were to extract the drawing from its surroundings, what would it look like? Questions like these led Joel Armstrong to begin drawing with bailing wire.

I (Jeremy) had the privilege of studying under Joel Armstrong at John Brown University, where he teaches illustration, mixed-medium and graphic design courses. Under Joel’s instruction I learned to ask that important question “what if?” Joel was always pushing limits, and questioning outcomes. “What if you tried this over here?” “What if you fill this image with words to describe it?” “What if this element became a symbol that you use again over here?” My own emerging style of found object assemblage was formed during that time, and Joel’s influence left a lasting impression. His questions forced me to work harder, and to bring more meaning and depth to my artwork.

Joel pushes himself in the same way. It was while working on his MFA (Drawing) from Colorado State University that he pushed the medium of drawing off of paper. The importance of story was already at work in his mind when Joel started drawing the contents of dresser drawers. What stories did those objects hold? What secrets did the various clothes, letters, scissors and spools of thread contain? A sense of wonder, curiosity and discovery met Joel as he explored the contents of dressers.

He began to draw using wire so the drawings could be taken out of drawers, examined and placed back. They could be hung from the ceiling or nestled in the crook of an armchair. Joel carefully kept the two-dimensional essence of a drawing, but pulled it free from the bounds of paper into three-dimensional space, creating an entire installation, a room full of drawings and stories that could be explored at will.

“As an installation artist, the entire gallery becomes my canvas. My art is an extension of real life and offers connections with memories, feelings, and expressions that the steady sound of a sprinkler can resurrect, or the bright sounds a happy bird can bring to mind. I tell stories that reflect our human experience.” –Joel Armstrong

Joel’s process involves rusting his wire drawings. Rust holds the nostalgic memory of living on the gulf coast of Texas, where humidity and salt water speed up the rusting process. This symbolic choice also references the passing of time and the process of aging, both of which are marked by stories. Joel makes a point to tell stories in everything he does.

Garage Sale” is the title of Joel’s latest work. He received a two-year grant to complete this installation. He bought objects from garage sales, asking for a story about each piece he bought. If there was no story, he imagined one. Each of these objects was drawn in wire. The wire drawings were rusted. The papers on which Joel’s wire drawings are rusted become rusty themselves and a “rust painting” (see process here) while the ghost image of his drawing is left behind. These paintings were framed. All of this was left out for an audience to peruse as they would an ordinary garage sale. An open invitation to participate in not only an American past-time, but in small, intimate glimpses into other people’s lives through their stories, through their belongings.

(buy a book about Joel’s Garage Sale installation here!)

“Most installation art leaves me wondering what I saw and what was trying to be said. Joel Armstrong’s environments are more like a gathering of friends telling stories that are so familiar I can listen to them for hours.” – Donald Kolberg

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