Arts Exposure

‘It’s Time to Address’er Drawers’

Artist comes face to face with mother’s words


Silver City artist Joel Armstrong is exhibiting his wire-based installation “It’s Time to Address’er Drawers” at Light Art Space, 209 West Broadway in Silver City. Please watch for gallery reopening information.

Armstrong, 63, and his wife moved to Silver City to live near his daughter, who recently had twins. Armstrong has been artist his whole life.

“I’ve been doing installation work,” he said. “I went to grad school in my late 30s and started working with wire and drawing with wire.”

He started with bailing wire, and now works with a nickel/silver combo and soldering wire. The Armstrongs have three grown children, all artists. He thinks because they were children when he was in grad school, they followed in the lifestyle.

“Right out of school, I started getting work as an illustrator,” he said. “In 1980-81, I was an illustrator and graphic designer. I actually just retired from 15 years teaching art at the University of Arkansas.”

Armstrong brings his life out in his art, bringing everyday things – and out-of-the-ordinary things – out into the light. With “It’s Time to Address’er Drawers,” he created an installation reflecting unseen elements of his own childhood.

Armstrong created the piece after his mom passed away in 1992. While cleaning out his mom’s belongings, he found many journal pages sealed in blank envelopes in his parent’s chest of drawers. The journals contained many longings, misgivings, and, most importantly, documented his parents’ physical and emotional abuse of one another.

The installation centers around the actual wooden chest that he artificially rusted. The mirror is obscured, not allowing the viewer to be distracted by their image. Each of the six drawers contains a bright colored light that highlights silver wire words taken from one of his mother’s journals. The viewer can pick up these words, read them, and sort them while listening to the recorded audio of the journal. The viewers are encouraged to interact and pin these words onto notebook paper-like lines on the wall. On the opposite wall, there is a set of two-inch blinds that contain the written words as well. Rusted wire drawings of family life surround the chest and help define a family who has been unaware of what has is hidden.  

“It’s Time to Address’er Drawers,” has been displayed in different venues across the United States and even in Europe. When it was being shipped to London, it got stuck on a boat and had to be picked up by a helicopter. The first time it was shown it was about 2001, he said, in Colorado. Its also been in Arkansas, Tulsa, Lubbock and other cities.

“I generally get grants to do installations,” he said. “I showed one last year here called ‘Clothesline,’ where you walk into an environment. They are all (his installments) generally personal stories.”

“Clothesline,” was about Armstrong’s children’s clothes, about missing them growing up and how the clothes were smaller than he remembered.

“What’s great about doing installations is how it connects with people.” He said. “Women’s shelters have brought women to experience it. The stories people tell are the best. Two people have written me and said, ‘this is exactly what I experienced, and this is why I am who I am.’”

Because of his childhood, Armstrong said he is very cautious about people and hates confrontation, and although he did not experience the physical violence between his parents, he remembers a lot of yelling.

“I do what I can to make people happy,” he said. “I try to prevent arguments. I didn’t witness the pulling of knives and banging heads on the wall. I just remember everything was like my fault.”

Creating this installation has been cathartic for Armstrong. Putting his mother’s words into actual physical form and finding someone who sounds like his mom for the audio recording that is the background noise of the installation, has made it real for him.

“I have been able to grieve about them later in life,” he said. “This has helped with the grieving process. I am bipolar, and my doctors have said that she probably was bipolar and my father was a severely depressed military man.”

But Armstrong himself has found a way to being healthy and happy.

“I am actually a very happy person,” he said. “My brother and I are able to laugh all the time.”