Wiili Armstrong was characterized as an "outsider artist.” He was untrained but prolific, frequently painting on things he found lying around just as readily as on canvas. The work of a man who struggled with his own demons including bipolar disorder, agoraphobia, and abuses of alcohol and drugs, his colorful, whimsical paintings are thought by some to be reminiscent of Van Gogh, Chagall, and Gauguin.
From an early age, Wiili Armstrong (born William H. Armstrong, Jr.) demonstrated high levels of both intelligence and creativity. His mother, Jean Armstrong, provided him and his three siblings with painting lessons from an early age. “He drew from the time he could pick up a pencil,” his mother remembered. “He would always find a pencil or a pen and would find a way to make something.”
Wiili’s father also influenced young Wiili. He was a well-respected ornithologist who took his young son to Central and South America on bird watching trips, and this gave rise to a lifelong obsession with nature. For one thing, Wiili could distinguish between bird species by their song, appearance and migratory patterns.
Although Wiili was mostly a loner from the beginning, he was very active in Boy Scouts and stopped just shy of becoming an Eagle Scout. However, during adolescence he began showing many symptoms of his underlying mental health issues; and in his 20s he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (what used to be known as manic depressive disorder). Many who knew him believe that he suffered from other mental illnesses as well, including schizophrenia and agoraphobia.
"He hated crowds of people,” his mother said. “Once I went to Raleigh with his sisters for one of his art shows and we wanted to surprise him. When we pulled up to the gallery that night, Billy was sitting parked in his car, which was easily recognizable because it was all painted. He was drinking heavily that night because he didn’t want to be around groups of people at all. We went inside and left him alone for a while, but I finally went out there and he talked to me for a few minutes. He just broke into sobs and it nearly broke my heart. I understood him then. I knew he was drinking because he just couldn’t face all those people in there. I told him ‘Billy, you need to come talk to these people’, because they all bought his pictures and had never met him.” (From Madison Fisler Lewis' biographical essay in The High Country Magazine, April/May 2014)
During Wiili’s manic stages, he would paint for hours on end, painting and writing poetry all day and through the night without feeling the need to rest. His paintings then were composed of warm, vibrant colors and fluid shapes, with much of the inspiration coming from the nature that he loved so much. But during his depressive states, Wiili often turned to alcohol and drugs for escape from his many demons. His work while in his depressive states was characterized by dark colors including dark blues and blacks, an introspective inspiration and preoccupation with death.
Eventually, Wiili was able to obtain an associate’s degree in wildlife management from Hocking Technical College in Nelsonville, Ohio, even while still spending much of his free time writing poetry and producing illustrations for the school magazine. He was even supposedly married briefly in 1976. However, he lived mostly on the streets, unable to hold a substantial job to pay rent; and he also spent times in mental institutions. Wiili made his final move from Raleigh to Boone in 1993.
In Boone, Wiili was known as the eccentric man selling art outside of Boone Drug on King Street; but he was also starting to be showcased in many different art galleries around the High Country. Throughout his artistic career, Wiili produced more than 1,000 pieces of art and poetry. He was 47 years old when he died from heart problems complicated by his other illnesses. His ashes are scattered in the sea.
In 2012, HMA featured sixty of Armstrong’s paintings in an exhibit called “From Billy to Wiili.” The exhibition was presented in conjunction with the premiere of a documentary produced by WTVI/PBS called From Billy to Wiili: A Bipolar Artist's Journey. You can see the half hour video here. People who love Wiili's art and were fascinated with Wiili himself talk about him, and Wiili reads some of his own poems as pictures of the artist through the years and some pieces of his art scroll by.
Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.