×

Art Maker: Martha Armstrong, painter

  • Painter Martha Armstrong in her Hatfield home with some of her art work behind her on the wall. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Painter Martha Armstrong in her Hatfield studio. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Painter Martha Armstrong in her Hatfield home, with some of her work on the wall behind her. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Painter Martha Armstrong in her studio at her home in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Tucson Morning.” Image courtesy of Martha Armstrong

  • “Zora” Image courtesy of Martha Armstrong

  • “Apple Tree Jazz” Image courtesy of Martha Armstrong

  • “Brandon” Image courtesy of Martha Armstrong


Friday, June 22, 2018

Martha Armstrong, who studied art at Smith College and Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1960s, is still going strong. The Hatfield painter, who recently exhibited at Northampton’s Oxbow Gallery, has shown her work for years in New England, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and many other locations.

Though her Oxbow show featured several portraits, Armstrong specializes in landscapes that offer a blend of abstraction and realism. As The New York Times wrote of her work a few years ago, “At once improvisational and carefully carpentered, these paintings explode toward the eye, like nature on first sight, at its most welcoming and irrepressible.”

Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you’re currently doing. What does it involve, and what are you trying to achieve?

Martha Armstrong: It’s the same as always — I see something I want to paint and try to figure out how to get it down. For my figure show last month at Oxbow, I was trying to finish images I started years ago, when I got someone to pose for me. When they left I stopped.

HL: What do you draw inspiration from? Do you ever have any “Eureka!” moments?

MA: I draw inspiration from looking. I am fascinated by the landscape: something huge you must translate to human size. How to imply scale, to catch the color, the light, before it changes. I don’t normally paint from memory. But after working on location for several days or weeks, I know I am working half from memory.

Eureka? I am overwhelmed by the beauty of
seeing. Even seeing something we call ugly. But that isn’t painting. It’s the impact of seeing that you want in a painting, not the exact landscape or person or  still life.

HL: How do you know when your work is finished?

MA: What does finish mean? Sometimes I struggle and push a painting, but it can be days before I think it is right. Giacometti said a painting has a life of half an hour. I can think it is finished and the next morning start over. I’ve put the brush down and left the easel before I realize I’ve made the decision it is finished.

HL: Have you ever had a “mistake” — a project that seemed to be going south — turn into a wonderful discovery instead?

MA: I’ve had many paintings I thought were failures but later decided I was wrong. A painting can have a life of its own. You have to recognize it.

HL: Name some artists you admire or who have influenced your work. What about their art appeals to you?

MA: In this day of flash and doing anything to attract attention, painting gets lost. I admire Stanley Lewis for his determinedly pursuing painting: form, composition, picture plane, reality of the subject.  These things are almost lost.

I also admire Matisse: his composing with color, his following the painting and not editing out what may seem wrong or out of control. I feel most comfortable with certain American painters — George Bellows, Alfred Maurer, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove — painting against history and European prerogatives.

HL: What’s the most recent exhibition/concert/book reading/other event by another artist or group that you’ve attended and enjoyed?

MA: The “Cézanne Portraits” exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. was alive. I also think Elena Ferrante’s novels raise writing about women to a new level.

HL: What's your go-to snack while you're working?

MA: Snacks? I usually don’t realize I’m hungry while working. When I stop, I’m starving.

HL: What do you do when you’re stuck?

MA: Often I just keep working. I probably should go for a swim.

— Steve Pfarrer 

Armstrong’s website is marthaarmstrong.com.