The visual world is compelling. It can be overwhelming. I have a distinct early memory of standing in a crib waiting for my grandmother. I am facing a mirror and behind me is a window full of sunlight and trees dancing in the wind reflected in the mirror. In kindergarten I remember painting. By elementary school I identified myself as a painter.
I am always trying to figure out how to put something down, to translate it into an image, a metaphor. Like a writer needing to put something into words.
I paint mostly landscapes. If I’m working on a large painting I go after the whole for as long as I can- days, weeks, scraping down in between, but focusing on what is out there, no matter how much it changes. I want the image to have pieces of many days.
I work on small studies along the way trying to get an idea about the whole. It is often a matter of paying such close attention to see– from the infinite number of marks you could make –what you choose to put down. I want the painting to be about a specific subject and about what is going on in my brain- intuition, feeling judgment, memory. Confronting it, avoid past ideas at all costs. Be as free as possible. Invent an equivalent without premeditation.
Small studies are often complete in one session- like playing a piece of music: one move must connect to another to build a whole.
The older I get the more complicated the world seems. Building a form over a long time is a way to pursue this. Finally, I don’t want a fast painting. I don’t want decoration. Painting has to carry all of history.
I was often left at the Cincinnati Art Museum as a child- a safe place. Today I travel to museums to see and draw from original work. As an undergraduate I shunned authority, spent most of my time painting outside or in my room. I spent my undergraduate years trying to figure out abstraction- Kandinsky, Mondrian, Jackson Pollack, not what it looked like but what it meant.
The 20th century left us with many new ideas about painting. In 1999 I held a seminar at Hollins University to discuss what we must take into the 21st century, ideas that should not be lost. How to integrate them into 30,000 years of painting? Photography and computers have mechanized the process of capturing an image. But what about the hand? We talk with our hands. The architect James Cutler speaks about getting his people to draw by hand. Drawing comes from the same part of the brain as speech and memory and creativity– eye to brain to hand, making marks, an image.
It’s an ancient process, the hand making marks to signify –the alchemy of painting.
My ballet teacher, Anneliese von Oettingen taught me about art — that an arm extended into space is as expressive as a branch of a tree in a Cezanne. I learned from her the power of line. I studied with her for ten years not so much to become a dancer but to learn the discipline and how much work it takes to dance or to make a painting.
The Cincinnati Art Museum and its Art Academy were regular havens. I studied there with Julian Stanczak, the OP Art pioneer who got me to look at Paul Klee’s Tunisian watercolors and to read John Marin’s letters to Alfred Stieglitz– an inspired introduction from someone whose own work was so very different.
At Smith College (BA 1962) I took great art history classes and studied with Leonard Baskin. From there I had a liberating year at Rhode Island School of Design (MS ’63) where I studied with Robert Hamilton, Gordon Peers and Norman La Liberte. I taught high school to put my husband Alan through law school. After two years I returned to RISD to paint, sculpt, and make prints.
In 1966 we moved to Philadelphia where I painted in the Philadelphia Museum until our son was born. You could do that, no one around, the guards were friendly, the heat stifling—no air conditioning. I exhibited at the Hartford Arts Foundation “Five Young Painters Show” in 1967, about the time we moved into a small house with great views. I worked there and up the street in the car or a field. I had my first Philadelphia show at Sessler’s Gallery in 1969, a few months after our daughter Abby was born. In 1972 I was in New York’s Kraushaar Gallery’s New Talent show. My first solo show at Gross McCleaf Gallery was in 1974.
Thanks to Estelle Gross and Sharon Ewing at Gross McCleaf I was in shows regularly at Woodmere Art Museum, Cheltenham Art Center, Allentown Art Museum, The Noyes Museum in New Jersey, The Harrisburg Arts Festival and the Philadelphia art Alliance, others.
I taught at community colleges, and the early 1980’s I began teaching with Fritz Janschka at Bryn Mawr College where I could continue to make prints. I taught a semester at Kansas City Art Institute (1982), had a retrospective at Haverford College of work in local collections (1984) then taught for four years at Indiana University in Bloomington (1986-90) where I exhibited with the IU faculty, at DePauw University, and at Sasama Brauer Gallery in Chicago. In summers I taught at Saugatuck, Michigan, for the Chicago Art Institute and at Chautauqua in Long Island for Queens College.
After participating in Bowery Gallery’s 1988 Invitational Show I became a gallery member. At that time I was showing with Mulligan Shanoski in San Francisco, where I was in the San Francisco International Art Expo at Fort Mason Center. In 1990 I started teaching at Smith College, and in 1995 we went to Cassis, France on a Camargo Foundation grant, an extraordinary experience painting on the Mediterranean with all its history. I returned to Cassis for several years thereafter and started exhibiting at Walter Wickiser Gallery in NYC. During that period I showed with Stanley Lewis at the List Gallery at Swarthmore College and at Dartmouth with Stanley, Nancy Frieze and Louisa Mattiasdottir.
In 2002 I was part of “Changing Prospects: The View from Mount Holyoke curated by Susan Danley and Martha Hoppin for the Mount Holyoke College Museum. In 2004 I was in “Imaginative Affinities: Echoes of Edwin Dickinson in Contemporary American Painting” curated by Scott Noel for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I was teaching for Ying Li at Haverford that year and invited George Nick and Lennart Anderson to speak about studying with Edwin Dickinson, organized an exhibit of their work at Gross McCleaf Gallery and was in “The American River” traveling show organized by Cynthia Reeves for the Great River Art Institute, Walpole, NH, and “From West to Wyeth-Painting in Philadelphia” at Woodmere Museum.
In 2010 I began showing with Larry Elder at Elder Gallery, Charlotte, NC—a series of one-person exhibitions, the most recent in March, 2017.
I have always learned from my students. I taught at Smith for several years along with semesters at Mount Holyoke, Dartmouth, Hollins University, and Haverford College, and participated in graduate critiques at the Pennsylvanian Academy of Fine Arts. (2007-14). I’ve been privileged to be a visiting artist at many schools. The summers of 2000-2005 I taught and exhibited at the International School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture in Italy. In 2006 I was a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome—a great experience where, thanks to the kindness of Director Carmela Franklin and the art historian Ili Nagy, in addition to painting the landscape I had access to the Academy’s collection of Etruscan figures. Painting from ancient sculptures continues to intrigue me-the drawing in them.
In 2014 Margaret Skove arranged the “Martha Armstrong Landscapes” exhibition at Blanden Art Museum, part of a two person show with Gerald Auten, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. About that time I showed in “ The Figure” with the Midwest Paint Group, “The Common Object” with Zeuxis, and was part the “Seven on Site” show at the Pennsylvania College of Art, and in “The Lay of the Land: Contemporary Landscapes from the Collection” at the Smith College Museum of Art.
I’ve done a number of shows at Northampton’s Oxbow Gallery, most recently “Friends & Family”—a collection of portraits made over the last forty years. At Gross McCleaf I’m currently exhibiting paintings from Vermont, Arizona, Italy and Ireland. Right now I’m preparing landscapes to exhibit at Bowery Gallery in March, 2019.
Covid brought a halt to most normal life, but Oxbow Gallery in Northampton had window exhibits. I put in two large drawings of Mackeral Skies. There were also group shows to which I contributed still lifes . As a Covid project I published a group of still lifes in “Lines of Light.”
Bowery Gallery in NYC had a series of on-line exhibits with ZOOM comments from the artists. I exhibited in three, one on collage, one called “Deep Design” where I entered 2020 paintings of the ocean, the third on “Then and Now” comparing early and recent work.
Gross-McCleaf in Philadelphia reopened under new ownership. In February 2021 I had an in-person exhibit, “Trees, Seas, and Objects”.
I feel like all of my work is still in front of me.
— Martha Armstrong, 2021