To study the art of Julie Armbruster is to enter into a strange world shaded with menace, humor, loneliness and hope, the murky landscape between our aspirations and our failures. “I’m always drawn to stories that deal with evolution and the cycles of change that living species undergo,” the 30-year-old Asheville artist says.
She speaks from personal experience: her life’s journey took her from the rural childhood surroundings of the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, to the metropolis itself, where Julie received her master’s degree from New York University. “Living there [in the city], you’re forced to take in so much stimulation,” Julie explains. “The pavements are hard on your body and the constant appraisal of your physical representation wear down the connection with nature.”
The alienation began to manifest itself in her mixed media work, much of it featuring recurring characters set in interior, claustrophobic surroundings or against vaguely threatening landscapes. Julie’s human figures are rotund and billowy, like those of her Little Fatties series or the deceptively infantile Potato Boy, who has been given an entire narrative history in the form of a book featuring his misadventures and exploits. Animal figures, often portrayed alongside their human counterparts or as animal/human hybrids, are distorted versions of their natural forms, with outsized teeth or limbs. “I’m paranoid about animal attacks — especially snakes, leeches and sharks — large crowds, sharp teeth,” Julie admits.
But as fantastical, even troubling, as some of Julie’s images may be, they’re grounded in actual experience. The Little Fatties series, for example, developed after Julie read news stories about Chinese children in urban environments grown obese from an overabundance of Western-style fast food. “I decided to make them little American girls, since the globalization of American fast foods is the reason these children exist,” Julie explains. “It’s a kind of imagined evolutionary strain where the Little Fatties no longer walk upright, but roll like pandas. They represent something horrible, but they are just so cute!”
Potato Boy is an even more developed concept, with enough of his own voice and moral universe to carry a continuing narrative. In addition to the book devoted to him, Potato Boy appears in single works, sometimes in company with Dillwad The Ugly Unicorn and other animal companions, as he struggles to right wrongs with unorthodox measures. “I like characters that have redeeming qualities and higher purpose,” Julie says of Potato Boy. “He’s painfully idealistic and always helps his friends no matter what the cost. The character and story serve as a reminder that good deeds are often punished, but if you see things through with absoluteness you’ll eventually find some semblance of satisfaction.”
Each of Julie’s works begins with what she calls “intuitive drawing,” learned from her undergraduate mentor John Lees, whose own drawings in inks and dry gouaches are built up and endowed over time, sometimes over several years, but each of which begins with little more than a shapeless form. Julie’s intuitive drawing begins with an ink stain on a wood panel. “I work the surface until something appears to me,” Julie says. “Sometimes it’s a version of another character I’ve come up with, and sometimes it takes a while to find something. The work reveals itself to me as I draw it out.” As a work develops, Julie may add elements with graphite, acrylics and pigments, the finished work sealed under an epoxy-based shield.
Julie has exhibited an astonishing amount of finished work since earning her Masters seven years ago, with shows in New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and in Asheville, where she settled after taking a post-graduate teaching assignment with Americorps. She provided literacy tutoring and art education enrichment at North Buncombe High School and at Mission Children’s Hospital, where some of her commissioned work is displayed. “My current style grew out of Asheville, the color and illustrative, detailed style. In New York I felt like I was losing my idealism and sense of community, and felt strongly that was worth building back up.”
While working out of shared studio space in Asheville’s Riverview District, Julie’s also responsible for a homegrown art collective, called the Newsworthy Drawing Club, with weekly meetings and an annual show.
Her exhibitions are often, and by design, in non-traditional settings — cafés, record shops, clothing boutiques, even a tattoo parlor — where those outside the gallery circuit can enjoy her work. “I try to accept each new show as a challenge and an adventure,” Julie says, which is a fair description of what faces the viewer, too. “I feel it’s always better to get viewers excited than to create something that isn’t memorable. Even if it makes them upset.”
Julie Armbruster’s work will be included in next month’s River Arts District Studio Stroll, and will be on show later in the summer at Over Easy Breakfast Cafe, 32 Broadway Street in Asheville; and in September at the Woolworth Walk Front Gallery. To view a sampling of Julie’s work, visit juliearmbruster.net.