I am an artist and I’ve been working…
“Make something out of nothing and do it alone.”
These are the guiding words of Ruth Armstrong’s grandmother, wife of Louis Asher, the reporter who famously teamed up with Richard Sears at the inception of Sears Roebuck & Co. Those words set the tone for the super-driven family that gave Armstrong her considerable determination and grounded perspective on artistic achievement.
Armstrong’s great grandfather’s sister is Elsa Neumann, the first woman to receive a doctorate in physics at the Max Plank Institute at the University of Berlin. Her mother was an obsessive sculptor who worked with movie sets and lived in Cambria from 1971 until her death. As a child, Armstrong recalls her father issuing mathematical problems to solve at the dinner table. This is a family that embraced extremes.
Armstrong is an easily identifiable fixture in Cambria frequently seen in the mornings at the French Corner Bakery at her “usual” table where she holds court as the unofficial Cambria greeter. She freely engages visitors with her colorful history and lively eyes.
In the afternoon, Armstrong can be found at Mojo’s Village Bean for her afternoon coffee where a few of her artworks are also on display. But who is she?
Born on a ranch in Chattsworth, Armstrong set out to obtain a BA in Psychology and Anthropology at UCLA in the late 1960s. She was determined to attend a post-graduate arts school but didn’t have a portfolio assembled. She found the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland to be a perfect fit. During this episode of her life, she met a law professor at a guitar lesson, got married and changed gears to become a stay-at-home mom, throwing herself into complete renovations of their Berkeley Hills home. Armstrong likes to note that her husband wouldn’t hammer a nail, so it was left to her to develop an entirely new skill set, which she did with her characteristic determination.
Life in Berkeley Hills agreed with Armstrong. She raised two sons who both went on to successful careers.
Maintaining an interest in art combined with her love of the outdoors, she started an organization in the 1990s: the “Berkeley Path Wanderers Association,” which includes transforming landscapes, paths, driveways and doors into works of art. It is still flourishing today.
Once Armstrong divorced her husband and moved to Cambria, she was free to expand her artistic skills. Locals sometimes see her sitting in her car at the beach where she draws for hours. She recalls: “One time, I was sketching in my car parked at Moonstone Beach until it got dark. I’d had my radio on for a long time, and my car battery died, so I had to call for a tow. I had completely lost track of time.”
“Art is meditation” according to Armstrong, and she often becomes immersed in a project that may include etching, carving and sketching photorealistic composite scenes including animals.
There is no room for error in her works; there is always a purpose. Her process includes taking a photo first and rendering it as she sees fit. Occasionally, she’ll offer a portrait to a musician as a tip. Her best works are done with graphite without errors or erasure. While photorealism requires concentration, Armstrong refers to her projects as “just playing,” which says much about her family environment of perfectionists.
Armstrong’s “Laughing Animals” portraits for the Oakland Zoo combine the compelling qualities of grace, humor and precision. Her composite etching of an eagle with figures is a stunning exercise in complex decision-making. Even her woodblock print of a woman carrying an animal displays evocative line-work. But despite the super-achiever background, this artist remains quietly grounded and present, greeting each day and artwork with equanimity. Stop by and say hello; you’ll get an unexpected education.
Through Dec. 30
Allied Arts Association
1350 Main St., Cambria
“Little Gems for the Holidays” wide-ranging affordable local artworks.
Dec. 15 to Jan. 20
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
1010 Broad St., San Luis Obispo
“Clay X 3” ceramic artwork by Ariane Leiter, Maria Teresa Rode and Catherine Schmid-Maybach