By Madison Fisler Lewis (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, April / May 2014)
Ironing boards, bed sheets and tire rims are things you would expect to find in your basement or on the side of the road. But items like these currently adorn the galleries in the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum, along with many other items as part of the museum’s newest exhibit, “The Painted Song,” which showcases the work of local folk artist, the late Wiili Armstrong.
The collection represents pieces from the personal collections of several donors including Beth and Web Alexander, Pam Ayoub, Jeff Eason, The Harwood Family, Lou Ann Kitchell, Tim Miller, Mary Shuford, Ginny Stevens, Sylvia and Cullie Tarleton, Cathy and Bill Williamson and an unnamed private collector.
Armstrong, who passed away in 2003, did the majority of his artwork in acrylic, but also utilized watercolor, pen and paper and mixed media among many other mediums. Armstrong’s colorful works and bold painting style have led to him being dubbed “The High Country Van Gogh.”
Twenty-five of the pieces included in the exhibit are from the collection of Tim Miller of Blowing Rock Frameworks and Gallery.
“He was a very sensitive guy, and of course he had some disabilities,” Miller said. “He lived on the streets some of his life, he lived in shelters and public housing. If you look at his work you see inspiration from many artists, including van Gogh. In Wiili’s words, he was a poet and then an artist. He loved his poetry.”
The exhibit includes a multimedia component that features a recording of Wiili himself reading some of his poetry aloud, and the exhibit also includes one of his poems on a huge scale, taking up the majority of one of the gallery walls.
One of Wiili’s most notable characteristics was his affinity for nature, and in particular birds and butterflies. A recurring theme throughout the exhibit is a bird in flight that leads museum visitors from room to room where they can follow Armstrong’s inspiration throughout his years as an artist.
“There are vinyl birds in each room,” said Allyson Teague, exhibits director at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum. “That’s his father’s influence shining through. His father was an ornithologist and veterinarian, and introduced Wiili to animals and nature. Wiili loved to paint birds and always took special care to paint their song as well. He was an exceptionally emotional person, and his art was how he felt most connected with nature.”
But Wiili Armstrong, the man, the poet, the artist and the enigma was so much more than his medium. While his unique artistic style was well known throughout his career, few people really knew the true depth of the talented poet and artist’s numerous demons.
“I met Wiili in a coffee shop in Boone in 1994,” said Tim Miller of Blowing Rock Frameworks and Gallery, who befriended the troubled artist.
“In the beginning, our relationship was just professional, but it is hard not to become personal with Wiili. He had a way of bringing you into his life, into his world. Everything was so personal with him, and it was hard not to get involved with him, because Wiili was such a mess from the beginning.”
Wiili Armstrong was born William H. Armstrong, Jr. on Aug. 18, 1956. From an early age, Wiili demonstrated an incredible level of intelligence and an overwhelming propensity for creativity. His first brush with painting came in early childhood when his mother, Jean Armstrong, provided him and his siblings with painting lessons. Latching onto this newfound form of self-expression, Wiili would continue to paint, draw, sketch and compose poetry for the remainder of his life.
“He drew from the time he could pick up a pencil,” said his mother, Jean Armstrong. “He would always find something to draw with. He would always find a pencil or a pen and would find a way to make something.”
From a young age, Wiili showed a sort of social dependency. According to his mother, Jean Armstrong, he had an obsession will showing that he could succeed, because nobody thought that he could. Wiili, especially in his youth, never had very many friends, mainly preferring to keep mostly to himself and living most of his life a loner.
“We were told when he was in grade school that he was genius level,” said Jean. “One of the teachers called me and said, ‘you’re going to have a problem with him.’ His teachers just really didn’t understand him, and he was probably smarter than most of them.”
From an early age, his father, a well-respected ornithologist, would take him to Central and South America on bird watching trips, which began a lifelong obsession with nature. From this unlikely childhood, Wiili developed the ability to distinguish between bird species by their song, appearance and migratory patterns.
Wiili, then known as Billy, was very active in Boy Scouts and stopped just shy of becoming an Eagle Scout. According to his mother, he presented very few real problems up until he was a sophomore in high school.
“Billy went to church camp his sophomore year along with some of his friends, and when he came back something was just different about him and we didn’t know why,” said Jean. “From there it was just one thing after another. We knew there was something else going on. We later found out that was when he first started experimenting with marijuana.”
Even though he was fiercely intelligent, Billy Armstrong, dropped out of his high school in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
During his adolescent years, Billy started to further display many symptoms of underlying mental health concerns. He was evaluated shortly following high school at institutions including Ohio State University, and he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depressive disorder.
“We tried for many years to find out what was going on with him,” Jean said. “Nobody would really tell us what was going on. Back then, things like that were not talked about like they are today. It was frustrating going all those years without an answer about his diagnosis. He was in his 20s when we finally got answers and he got diagnosed as bipolar.”
But many who knew him believe that he suffered from other mental illnesses as well, including schizophrenia and agoraphobia.
“He hated crowds of people,” Jean said. “Once I went to Raleigh with his sisters for one of his art shows and we wanted to surprise him. When we pulled up to the gallery that night, Billy was sitting parked in his car, which was easily recognizable because it was all painted. He was drinking heavily that night because he didn’t want to be around groups of people at all. We went inside and left him alone for a while, but I finally went out there and he talked to me for a few minutes. He just broke into sobs and it nearly broke my heart. I understood him then. I knew he was drinking because he just couldn’t face all those people in there. I told him ‘Billy, you need to come talk to these people’, because they all bought his pictures and had never met him.”
His bipolar disorder disrupted not just his social life, but his professional life as well.
“The bipolar disorder was hard to deal with at times,” Miller said. “When Wiili was on, he was really on. But when he was in a depressed state, you couldn’t get him to paint for months. With Wiili, it was really hit or miss.”
After his diagnosis, Wiili’s life was a continuous cycle of ups and downs. During his manic stages, he would paint for hours on end, painting and writing poetry all day and through the night without feeling the need to rest. Eventually, he was able to obtain an associate’s degree in wildlife management from Hocking Technical College in Nelsonville, Ohio while spending much of his free time writing poetry and producing illustrations for the school magazine. He was even married, however briefly, in 1976, Miller said. Unfortunately, the union was not to be, and ended almost as soon as it began. On his good days, Wiili was the epitome of artistic voracity and proliferation. His paintings were composed of warm, vibrant colors and fluid shapes with much of the inspiration coming from the nature that he loved so much.
But during his depressive states, a completely different Wiili emerged. During hard times, Wiili often turned to alcohol and drugs for solace from his many demons, and took his medication only sporadically due to undesirable side effects.
Wiili found himself checked in and out of various mental institutions. His work while in his depressive states is characterized by dark colors including dark blues and blacks, an introspective inspiration and preoccupation with death.
Where his medication so often failed him, Wiili found unfailing solace and boundless comfort in his poetry and in his art. Painting and writing, especially about the nature and the animals that inspired him, provided a sort of therapy for the troubled man, and it allowed him to escape his pain or express his joy when social interactions were too much for him to bear.
His obsession with birds, butterflies and other delicate pieces of nature, especially those with the ability to fly, dominated his artwork during his manic states.
Wiili lived mostly on the streets, unable to hold a substantial job to pay rent and served more than a few stints in mental institutions including Dorthea Dix and Broughton Mental Hospital. After residing in the Raleigh area for six years, Wiili made his final move to the High Country in the early 1990s.
“Wiili really loved the mountains,” Miller said. “In his earlier pieces, he made references to the mountains being very spiritual to him, because they were closer to birds and nature.”
And it was the mountains that really inspired Wiili, who now had unbridled access to the nature that inspired his creativity. Throughout his artistic career, Wiili produced more than 1,000 pieces of artwork, poetry and even a book, which Wiili sold on the streets of Raleigh to make extra money.
Wiili seemed to really come into his own when he finally settled down in Boone. Though known by most for being the eccentric man selling art outside of Boone Drug, Wiili became much more than that for the many whose lives he touched.
“He was very happy in Boone,” said Jean. “While he was there he joined alcoholics anonymous because I will admit he had an alcohol problem. The doctors there were great too.”
Wiili began to be showcased in many different galleries around the High Country. Though he was frequently unable to fulfill his obligations due to his bipolar disorder, his unique style of art and vibrant personality made Wiili a highly respected artistic entity and a well-known face around the High Country.
Though the majority of Wiili’s work, which eventually numbered more than 1,000 individual pieces, was sold by him on the streets, many pieces were also showcased in popular area galleries and are how housed in numerous private collections.
The artist’s life came to an end all too soon over Christmas in 2003. Wiili was found in his apartment in his bed, as if he had simply fallen asleep and never woken up. Though nobody knows for certain what happened to him in his last moments, many hope that he passed away peacefully, surrounded by the artwork and poetry that brought him such happiness.
“It is true that we have the date of his death set at Dec. 27,” Jean said. “We know for a fact that he did not die on Christmas, because we talked to him on Dec. 26. We think that he probably died the night of the 26th but we don’t know the exact time he died. My anniversary with my husband is the 26th and so we prefer that he died on Dec. 27.”
But although Wiili Armstrong the man is no more, his life is remembered and his legacy lives on through his art and his poetry. Where the material world failed him, his inspirations for his work continue to serve as a reminder for the extraordinary man that he was.
“I am absolutely proud of him,” Jean said. “Many great artists are bipolar and many have similar troubles. He didn’t have any control over it at all. He was a loner for most of his life, but he wasn’t at all estranged from his family. We were never estranged from him. His sisters and I and his father always stood by him and tried the best that we could. I have some pieces that he did that I wouldn’t trade for anything. One of my favorites is a portrait he did of his vision of Bill and I. Most of his artwork you really have to decipher. He would do a piece and say, ‘What do you see?’ Because you could look at his art for days and find new things everyday.”
After his death, Wiili was returned to nature, forever joining what remained of Wiili’s worldly being with the nature that comprised his true soul.
And so, the man who lived a life of torment, continually struggled with debilitating mental illness and existed very much alone on the fringes of society left in the wake of his death a legacy of unbridled creativity, unfathomable beauty and an intriguing legend that truly nobody could completely understand.
He created a world of vibrant color, meaningful words and mythological beauty all his own, and left the rest of us to merely attempt to decipher his painted song.