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WYSO's Studio Visit is about Miami Valley contemporary artists and the ideas that inspire their work. The series is produced by Susan Byrnes from the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices

Studio Visit: What’s old is new again in the paintings of Zachary Armstrong

Susan Byrnes

Zachary Armstrong is killing it as a contemporary painter. He’s got a New York gallery and shows his work in LA, London, Paris, and Beijing. Though he never went to art school, he’s an insatiable student of art history.

"A lot of the artists I really really love are artists I don’t have a lot in common with, and that’s why I like them, there’s a lot to learn from and understand," Armstrong said.

He shows me a xerox copy of a small black and white etching from 1868.

"This right here is Gustav Dore’s Council of the Rats," he said.

Right next to that is the painting he’s working on – a full color remake of the original, as big as a billboard

"When you see that nine by seven inches on a scale that is like 11 feet by 10 feet, whatever this is, a lot of things change, negative space, details, all these things. It’s not the same image. So there were a lot of things that you blow up and it kind of turns into mush, too much negative space," Armstrong explained.

"You see this rat here in this bottom corner?" he asked. "I never could quite figure out what he’s holding in his hand, if it’s food, if it’s just a rag, especially if you see that and it’s 20 inches tall. It became really abstract. So after some time I decided to put a block of cheese in his hand instead."

Besides changing the scale, he paints in encaustic, an ancient Greek technique using colored hot wax.

"So it’s just like raw beeswax, and these crystals, and you mix that together, and you just add oil paint," he stated.

Then he carves back into the wax surface to create etched lines and textures, which is his signature technique. He’s remade works by Pieter Brueghel and Norman Rockwell too. Right now he’s enlarging another Rockwell, of a man working on a stained glass window, to try something new.

Armstrong said, "This is like, no carving and trying to paint as you’d say 'photo realist'. Making it look as much like the original Rockwell as possible. But it’s all wax, it’s all encaustic, and one of the reasons why doing this painting is really just to see what you can do with this paint, and to paint with it as many ways as possible."

"As an artist you can gain from this or give back to the artist that you’re working on," he expressed. "How I gave myself a little bit of license to create someone else’s art was realizing that that’s kind of in a way I think how a lot of people start drawing, even when they’re young."

And he did, too. When he was six years old he became obsessed with the work of British Sci-Fi illustrator Ian Miller.

"One drawing specifically," Armstrong recalled.

Of a humanoid face with burning eyes under the brim of a kind of helmet. He drew it over and over, and even put it into his paintings.

"And it kept evolving," he said excitedly. "I would change it, I would try to make it exactly like he would, I would do everything I could to do this. I haven’t worked with this image in two years now maybe, and I looked at it the other day, an original of his and I thought, 'Oh God, there’s still stuff in here, I want to do it again!'”

One of his large scale paintings of the face was included in a major solo show he had in China last year. He made a giant Rockwell for that show too.

Normally, in this hyper contemporary art museum where this was, there would not have been a Rockwell ever in this space.

Or a British Sci-Fi illustrator. These kinds of works might be considered too old fashioned or not high art. So he’s putting them in front of people, and on a grand scale, so they can see them with fresh eyes.

All you’re trying to do is show the greatness and beauty in both and try to learn as much as you can from all these things. He makes an effort to be open to all kinds of art, to learn from it and also give back. That’s a lesson we can all take to heart.

Studio Visit is produced by Susan Byrnes and created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Susan works as visual artist, arts writer, teaching artist, and audio producer. She lives in Cincinnati now but loves, misses, and often visits the Miami Valley. You can find her visual and audio works on her website www.susanbstudio.com.