Frank Armstrong prefers to take the back roads, keeping the speed of his Jeep Grand Cherokee around 35 miles per hour so he can easily pull over or make a U-turn to explore something that has caught his eye.
With that method, Armstrong has made compelling images across America. Now, his work is being honored with a show at the Fitchburg Art Museum aptly titled “American Roadsides: Frank Armstrong’s Photographic Legacy.”
The exhibition features 41 recent digital color photographs by Armstrong. It celebrates his art and his impact as an educator. Armstrong last year wrapped up a 21-year teaching career at Clark University.
Alongside Armstrong’s landscapes, the exhibition will also display photos from seven former students: Sarah Bilotta Belclaire ’12, Rachel Loischild ’05, Greer Muldowney ’06, Jasper Muse ’13, Eric Nichols, who took a class by Armstrong at Worcester State University in 2004 and another at Clark in 2005, Catherine Wilcox-Titus, who took courses with Armstrong and in 2009, 2010, and 2011, and Russell Banks, who studied under Armstrong at the University of Texas, Austin.
“I want people to laugh at some of the things in the show. I want some people to cry at some of the things in the show. I just want people to realize it’s Americana. It’s who we are as a culture,” says Armstrong. “I hope people will slow down enough to look at the work so it’s like they’re discovering the same thing I’m discovering. That’s the note of the show. It’s a way to slow yourself down.”
The show opens Feb. 12 and runs through June 5.
Nick Capasso ’81, the director of the Fitchburg Art Museum, says he is drawn to Armstrong’s photography because it is visually eloquent.
“He takes on all kinds of interesting themes in his work in terms of the subject matter,” says Capasso. “It’s quirky. It’s poignant. It’s sometimes nostalgic. It’s sometimes funny. It’s sometimes sad. But the photographs are always beautiful.”
Former students recall the gregarious Armstrong as an artist and professor who immersed himself in the process of refining photos.
Muse remembers learning how to craft a photo in Armstrong’s classroom, getting the look and clarity as close as possible to a real-life image.
“He has a great eye for the beautiful abstractions that exist out in the world. The wear and history and weathering and layers of stuff on old buildings,” says Muse. “There is a lot of humor in it too, especially in the roadside stuff.”
Muldowney kept Armstrong’s humor in mind when creating one image for the Fitchburg show.
“Frank puts little MacGuffins in a lot of his work so there’s usually some sort of a lawn ornament or a busted toilet. I found some flamingos in Somerville and couldn’t resist,” she says. “In art it’s really hard to be funny. You don’t really think about art and humor in the same sense, necessarily. And Frank usually sneaks a good little dad joke here and there into his images. But other times he’ll have something that’s really cutting.”
Six of Armstrong’s photographs in the show will be displayed at an impressive size of 40 by 50 inches.
“When you print photographs that big, they really become immersive,” Capasso says. “It makes it easier for visitors to lose themselves in the imagery.”
While the exhibition opens next month, the opening reception has been postponed to March 26 in response to the recent Omicron surge. The exhibition is supported in part by the Simonds Lecture Fund and by a grant from the Artist’s Resource Trust.
Armstrong says identifying a favorite piece in the show is like choosing a favorite child.
“They’re all my children,” he says. “There are some I love because of how they reflect on people. There are some that I like just because of the sheer beauty of them. And there are others that almost move me to tears because of their nobility.”
People are noticeably absent from Armstrong’s photos. He describes his photographic subjects as “social landscapes,” unique moments where the manmade and natural worlds meet.
Armstrong, who’s 86, isn’t slowing down. He’s aiming to visit New Mexico and Iceland in the coming months to search for more images.
“That’s the problem with being an artist. You don’t want to slow down, because as you mature in your art you get more hungry,” he says. “Maybe that’s just because time is passing.”