Friday, October 10, 2008

Bill Armstrong: The Artist's Artist--My Interview with one of New York's Greats

This innovative artist has had numerous solo exhibitions all over the world, his work is in the collections of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Brooklyn Museum, Centro Internazionale, De Cordova Museum, Fogg Art Museum, Lehigh University Art Galleries, Musee De l'Elysee (Switzerland) and in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to name a few. His work continues to be published yearly in books and magazines and he is the recipient of art awards that include an Acquisition Award, Fine Art Honorable Mention, Purchase Prize and Best in Show. His work recently displayed at the Aperture Art Gallery in Chelsea, New York where his "Mandela" piece was published on the cover of a collective abstract art book.It was an honor to meet with him to discuss some of his work.

Nice to meet you Bill, I love your work! This is so exciting. I have some questions about some of your series.

Okay, ask away.

What do the Mandela images signify?

They are based on Buddhist or Hindu paintings.

And the Apparition series, what inspired you?

They were taken from Roman sculptures.

Was it your intention for people to be able to recognize them?

No, they're kind of ghosts of the Romans, appearing now to remind us what happened to them.

What camera technique do you use?

Film, medium format camera, shot up very close with the focusing ring set at infinity to achieve blur...

(fascinated) Why the blur?

It de-materializes things and makes them ephemeral. Also, my work is made from collages, and extreme defocusing makes the seams of the collages disappear so the image appears to be from the real world—that’s the magic that makes it all work.

Tell me more about the Renaissance series.

They are made from Renaissance drawings. They are meant to represent different aspects of the human condition—some are free, floating or flying and others are bound or struggling. The colors tend to be more pastels than my prior work.

And the figures?

Those were some of the first ones; they are cut out pictures from fashion magazines. They represent ghost figures, perhaps from a parallel universe...they are about identity, everyman but no man, featureless but individual.

And these beautiful Mandalas?

They are collages made from colored paper. Like Buddhist paintings, they are meditative pieces, referencing spirituality.

Do you have a favorite?

No, I like them all.

Recent recognition?

My work appeared in the New Yorker last year. I currently have an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

What's the business aspect in the Art world like?

I became an artist because I didn't want to be in business, but it turns out that being an artist you also have to be a businessman. You have to do everything yourself—production, marketing, accounting etc. I teach part time because it’s pretty difficult to live from print sales—especially now.

And how long have you worked as an artist?

Over thirty years. I started these blurred images ten years ago, but before that I worked with graffiti and torn posters.

Would you be considered one of the more well-known artists out there?

No. I’m fairly well-known in the Photography world, but not necessarily in the Art world...not yet, anyway.

I always tend to ask the celebrity question, has any famous person ever approached you?

Martha Stewart commissioned me to do a blurred picture of an abstraction of a wine rack.

What artist would you consider to be an inspiration, what is one of the greats (to you)?

Robert Rauschenburg was a big work isn't like his but it's about collage, so it’s similar in a way. I would consider him to be about the most important artist of the second part of the century.

Talk a little about your Kama Sutra collection from your archive. Looking at it, unless you see the title, you would have no idea it is what it is.

That's true. Even if you know what it is, you don't really see it. There's a difference between what the mind thinks and what it actually sees. So it’s more conceptual than the other work, in a way. In the blue one (from same collection), the person depicted is a courtesan preparing to meet someone, and there's something very lonely about it. I’d like to do more of those.

Each photo brings the viewer to so many different worlds, it's really quite unique.

Thank you.

I'm going to keep an eye out for your work during my future visits to museums and educate my students about your work; many of them are extremely interested in art.

Capture the Beauty and Essence: check out this artist's current exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and learn more by going to his webpage by clicking on image above (top left corner). All displayed art is courtesy of Bill Armstrong. Not intended for Duplication, copy, or use for public unless permission is granted by artist.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Josephine Kenny: Aspiring Artist (Ireland)

the meadow
Rosses Point
the cottage
rock of ireland
the metal kettle
Sunflower (Acrylic: 450 Euro-sold @ Solas)
sail boats on slate
red flowers
flowers in bloom

a family of ducks
irish daisies

a close up of the butterfly painting
chirping birds (Acrylic: 245 Euro @Solas)

I recently spent the day with Josephine Kenny where I became privvy to her undeniably tranquil paintings. She spoke with me about her use of vibrant colours, the importance of art therapy and her current pieces that can be found in her art studios and at local galleries. Owning an original Josephine Kenny became a goal during this interview...I believe in no time her work will invariably become world known.

You recently returned to painting?

I came home from Dublin to care for my ailing mother. It wasn't until I completed a series of black and white sketches (predominately still life) that someone took notice (her sister) that I decided to take it to the next level. These early sketches were of my home life in Leitrim; my fathers' possessions-his shaving gear for example, burning candles, books...

What is your approach to art?

I see a painting in my mind before I start and it stays there for days...I get excited about how I will approach it (new muse). Lately I take my digital camera along with me..the on-the-spot shots I have captured are simply amazing.

When do you get inspired to create?

When I'm walking my dog, Holly actually. I am forever looking in the hedges and tall trees to examine their different foliage, sprigs and berries to examine them more closely at home to get my inspiration to begin a new project. I've just moved to the country after living in the city of Dublin for many years and there you just don't see this.

So now, it's like you're rediscovering these things?

Yes, as if I'm noticing their essence for the very first time.

Aside from your home place of Leitrim, where else do you feed your creativity?

I visit the Irish beaches often: Rosses Point in Sligo or Portmarnock in Dublin. I just walk along and find seaweed, lovely shells and stones and imagine painting and sketching them. I love this time of year; the falling of the leaves and the sunlight that shines through the rustic and ever changing colours!

When you are immersed in the act of art, are there any typical thoughts and feelings you experience?

Feelings of freedom and contentment...I typically have a personal attachment to whatever it is I am painting at the moment and people often recognize this by my mood. And when I am painting outside I am much more free to express myself...

What do you enjoy painting mostly?

I love strong bright colours to splash around. I love depicting the country in my work: cows, dogs, sheep, birds, squirrels, and flowers...the country in my youth. I appreciate the wonder of Gods' creations all around me and its beauty.

Aside from painting, where else can one find your stylistic impressions?

At Christmastime I make decorations: wreathes and ornaments to share with family and friends made from natural material that I find in my garden and out on my walks. I am a qualified florist from Kays School of Floristry in Dublin. I also paint on slates, walls, and stones amongst other things...

I love this rock, it's beautiful! Are there any artists you aspire to?

Vincent himself. I actually love yellows and reds...I love cheerful-strong colours...I've painted many sunflowers also (displayed). I recall selling a similar one to a gentleman from Galway that had been rejected at a gallery. It was sentimental to me because it was painted just after my mothers' passing.

What education have you received in the arts?

I was the only student who chose art honours for my leaving cert. Upon graduation I was going to continue to study art at a college in Sligo but instead I took a job at Eirecom...I've returned after a long absence. At this stage of my life, I'm taking a big risk...

Is it worth it?

I think so. I'm happy. I am fulfilling my passion and my art has helped me overcome the loss of my mother. I am going with my gut feeling...I sort of envy myself for this. I think it's so important for one to have a pastime, a passion to fall back on in trying times. Whenever I see my work displayed in galleries, I am happy, cheerful...

Is art a talent or a skill?'s both! For me it can be hard to start but once I start it's hard to stop...

You have a very well know neighbor?

Yes, the famous writer, John McGahern. I've just read his memoir...very good...depressing but good. He really had a tough life. In a way, his bravery, his writing...has led other local artists to take risks. I painted a picture of his book. It was one of my earlier sketches from my original collection of black and white sketches.

Where can one buy one of your breathtaking paintings?

I am selling some of my paintings at Solas Art Gallary in Ballinamore. My paintings have been sold at The Book Shop in Carrick-on-Shannon and at Taylors. You can always email me also: or

Wonderful! Thank you so much for showing me your art studios, I love everything you do!

Thank you.

(The Solas Gallery is a new artist-led gallery space in Ballinamore which officially opened on Friday 20th July. The new gallery is a partnership led initiative between Leitrim County Council Arts Office, Four Seasons Flower Shop and artists from Ballinamore/South Leitrim and is funded by Leitrim County Council Arts Office and The Arts Council.)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Jim Hoover: Art Director at Viking Books Children's Book Publishing

Several years ago (2000 actually) I met Jim when I was on my way to my friend Sean's house. Unbeknownst to me, Jim had moved in with Sean only days before. I approached the two boys, said hello to Sean and introduced myself to Jim. Neither of them said a word to me, they were just sadly standing there. Sean finally said the apartment had burned down within the last hour. I offered Sean and his girlfriend and his unfortunate new roommate digs for the night and even helped dig a hole in a park to bury their cat who perished in the fire. It was truly one of the worst days ever, but Jim became one of my best friends. Since 2000, he has always wanted to work for Viking and now he does just that! Even though, he and his fiance moved to Brooklyn, we stay in touch. He was more than willing to share his job experiences at one of the finest children's book publishing companies in the world...and check out the above picture of him in the midst of his work, so zen.

What is your occupation? I know but just tell me again.

I am an art director at Viking books.

And exactly how long have you worked there Jim?

I've been here four, no wait, five years, before that I was at Puffin for three...

What are some precious titles I as a future mommy and current teacher should be aware of that your company provides?

From Shreik to Al Gore's An Inconvenient an award winning John Lennon Biography and countless other books in between...Jon Scieszka...

Who's that?

Wrote "Stinky Cheese Man" Duh! And he recently became the first children's book ambassador! And we just did a cover with Gary Taxali, another great children's book illustrator, and Aimee Mann's album cover...

So Cool Jim! I want to work for Viking! What current project they got you working on?

An Apollo 12 book with Astronaut Alan Bean (see picture of book above), the fourth man to walk on the moon.

Did you ever meet him?

No, lives in Texas, we spoke on the phone a few times (bragging a little bit), he lives in Houston, really nice guy.

Um, I see you met Amy Sedacas, did that have to do with your job?

No, we met at a Barnes and Noble book signing, I just love her!

I do too, I want to buy her new book-she's great. Al Gore?

Didn't get to meet him either, he did email me once though (laughing).

Really? Where is it? Did you frame that? I would have framed that!

Ah, no..I think I still have the link somewhere though, he just wrote something quick like, "looks good to me," that was about my only interaction with the former vice president.

Email him hello for me! (being very serious) When you helped create the book, "In the Middle" what was it like rehashing those middle school years?Jim:(Sighing)

Awful, just awful...terribly painful...

(Laughing) Really? Why?

Well back then...and everyone included in the book fits within the same ball park...had similar experiences, we were so mean to each other! I mean vicious!

You were mean in middle school?

Yeah, I think everyone was! That's just the way it went...if you go back and think about it...

No thanks. you treated an easy target, picking on those less than you, just to make yourself feel better about yourself, I did it, sorry to report.

I really loved not only the words you wrote in this book but I absolutely loved all your amazing illustrations, what other books have you illustrated for?

I hire illustrators and work closely with them to finalize/design covers.

But not illustrate?

When I was young I thought being the illustrator was the be-all-end-all, not so much anymore. Now, I like the collaboration, working with others to create it (the hundreds of covers). I do art for me, the publication of my illustrations lost its luster. I've helped in the publication of so many books, it doesn't matter so much any more.

Favorite author?

Favorite author or Favorite artist?


Umm, who is my favorite artist(long pause, that's like asking who is my favorite author) Peter Sis, Lane Smith...


They are both...see their work and my jaw drops illustrators. I've actually worked with Peter Sis, he's my hero!

Growing up, did you have a favorite children's book as a child, that question sounds weird, do you know what I mean though?

Yea, so many, so so many..."The Story of Ferdiand" which was actually published by Viking also in the 1930s and knocked "Gone with the Wind" off the top selling book list!

Describe the plot a little bit, I'm unfamiliar.

Seriously? It's one of the most famous books! About a very peaceful bull who just wants to lay in the shade...

Is there some kind of political message?

(laughing) No, the lesson is more about what happens, the Maditators want to fight the fiercest bull and one day they see him react violently after getting a bee sting and get him into the ring where he just smells flowers thrown into the ring but doesn't fight, it's just not him...

So the moral of the story?

You may think a big bull like him should be tough, but he's quite the opposite, never judge...sometimes bulls just want to lay about beneath a Cork tree (sounding like he's teaching a preschool class the meaning of the book).

Cork tree, did the story take place in Ireland or something?

No, Spain actually.

What's one of your favorite covers you assisted with?

An Inconvenient Truth.

An Inconvenient Truth? Isn't that an adult book?

We did the children's version of it...


Oh, we also did a John Lennon Biography, children's version. A non-fiction, biography but also we tried to paint an actual portrayal of his essence, of the person, the factual stuff is all correct but we tried to really capture who John was.

Sounds like he was your favorite Beatle?

He was. Different reasons, I like the transformation from muddy rascal to sincere leader of peace, really interesting to see...he was by far the more interesting Beatle to me...he could be a real jokester even when he met Yoko, he maintained that rascal side to him, when you're doing a biography book like that, where a character has character flaws or contradicts themselves...this makes good literature.

I agree, I love dynamic characters!

I like Paul the least...

Many fans from the 60s would shoot you for that!

They're wrong. Ringo was John's favorite, always pop culture, neighborhood kid, George was thoughtful...

Did you get any assistance from them when you and your company created this book?

Paul was no help at all whereas Yoko was surprisingly helpful and gracious. Ironically, we did Paul's book (Paul created his own children's book around the same time) and even though there was a lot of promotion, it tanked.

When you're not creating wonderful children's books, probably the most important thing one could do for today's youth when you think about it, what else do you do?

As far as art is concerned, I still do a lot of figure drawing, there's places everywhere in the city. They even got places now in the city where they have a bar, so when you get tired or need a break, you can relax and have a drink...and chill out.

Do you consider it an intimate experience?

Absolutely, it is in that you're capturing someones mannerisms, their physicality, usually when I draw, I let my mind wander, you almost channel between the eye and the's very zen.

Tell me more about Viking.

It just celebrated its 75Th year anniversary, big party, lots of good wine, everyone hung out and had a nice evening.

You seem so happy Jim!

Viking has really maintained itself, has more awards for its illustrators and literary authors then other imprints can boast about, has an incredible back list (from years ago that still stay in print).

That's very amazing for books these days!

Like movies that teeter off after a few weeks, so like books. Most books do well the first few
weeks, then within a few years, they're out of print, not so with Viking.

Keep reprinting! Even in this recession, things with the stock market, everything is crumbling...

It stays steady every year and reprints books like "The Outsiders" by S.E Hinton, "Corduroy Books", "Madeline,"" Make Way for Ducklings,"" The Story of Ping," "Whistle for Willy"...all the greats.

Do you get a great satisfaction knowing your skill/trade/job occupation
whatever is transforming the minds of our youth in a positive way?

First, I love it when good children's books get good reviews, and it really does my heart well to see a kid enjoying a book we at Viking created. My best friend's kid (I gave him one of our books, "Red Truck") memorized a book I helped art direct, to see each stage, each page, and then to see how the child reacts and you see how this book is going to be a book, it's great, hey, my boss is on the other line, chat soon?

Okay, bye Jim! I know where to buy books for my young family members now, keep the recommendations coming!