Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Student leader profile: Toby Armstrong applies talent to pursued interest

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian
(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

A marble collided with the inner lining of a Rust-Oleum spray can, priming the red paint for its ejection onto a small rectangle of paper. Toby Armstrong tossed the can to his left, popped the top off another canister and crisscrossed the red layer with teal streaks. He grabbed another cylinder from the small suitcase to his right and released a mist of white paint in short bursts, adding to the scattered grid of color.

Armstrong quickened his pace. A rhythm of hissing paint and rattling cans rose along the movements of his hands. As a pile of paint-covered clutter formed around him, his piece took shape. He dipped his fingertips into a gob and flicked white specks across a night sky.

“This is kind of the fun part where I can kind of experiment, I can approximate what it’s going to look like at the start but can’t really tie down how the end product will come out,” Armstrong said.

What started out as shapeless layers of color is now an immense planet overlooking mountains and water against the black backdrop of space.

The painting took him less than 10 minutes.

Armstrong, a BDIC major from Lexington, later commented that many of his paintings combined worldly environments with the color scheme and proportions of a dream world.

Similar scenes of Armstrong’s work lined the walls of his suite in the Elm dormitory at the University of Massachusetts. Rivers, mountains and a solitary figure rapt in meditation drifted in front of massive planets and nebulas of greens, purples and deep blues.

Three years ago, Armstrong saw a YouTube video of a graffiti artist complete a painting in three minutes. He was hooked. He watched videos of hundreds of artists, taking notes of tools they use and what images work best with the medium of spray paint.

“When I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a street performer. I’ve always had a thing for juggling, still do. I don’t what it is, I was always just drawn to that type of energy,” he said.

Armstrong said he’s had an artistic side since he was as a child, his mother encouraged him to sketch and foster his creative side but he never received formal training.

“A lot of this medium relies on trial and error,” he said. “The chemistry of the paint suits certain scenes better so that explains some of my repetition. But I don’t believe that talent is a genetic or inherent thing.”

Armstrong’s progression was slow at first but he eventually began producing pieces that captured people’s attention. He started to do live spray painting in town squares and at local festivals to sell his work. As sales picked up he started to receive requests from friends and customers through his Facebook page.

“It started as a hobby and then a way of therapy for myself but now it’s starting to develop into a long-term business thing,” he said.
Armstrong said he’s drawn to a surrealist style of painting. Many of his pieces contrast images of space, of nature and abstract swirls of vibrant color that Armstrong said is supposed to represent collections of emotion.

“I’m really interested in combining the surreal. I like having that grounding in reality or that aspect that makes it surreal or uses abstract concepts. I really like trying to visualize emotions, it pushes me explore all the contrasting meanings,” Armstrong said.

A solitary figure in a meditative pose reoccurs in many of his pieces. He explained that contrasting the figure with surrealistic imagery and space settings begs the question of whether the scene exists or is entirely taking place in the figure’s mind.

Armstrong sat cross-legged on a thick red mat in his bedroom and as he thumbed through a collection of his pieces and explained his connection to the medium.

“I would say this is my form of meditation,” he said. “When I begin a piece, I don’t think. The rest of world is reduced to the scene I’m trying to create before me.”

He called music a necessity for when he paints, he prefers mellow electronica or instrumentals that help him connect emotions with color. Recently, he laid out a collection of rainbows while Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” lulled in the background.

Spray cans overflowed from a cardboard box in the corner of his room, piled on top of more containers full of scraping tools, worn respirators and blackened stencils and scraps of paper.

A didgeridoo rested against a cloth tapestry, small cards inscribed with the words transcendence, serenity, peace bordered a poster of Dali’s “the Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.” A replica of one of Dali’s famous melting clocks ticked away on a desk adjacent to the poster.

“I really like the works of Dali, his recreations of dream worlds; I’d say he’s an inspiration of mine,” he said. “Bob Ross too, but I would say I have hundreds of influences.”

Armstrong looked at a painting propped in the far corner of his room, his favorite work. A solitary man sits in a rowboat, drifting along a deep blue river suspended in space that snakes towards a focal point of intense color.

“I wish people would try more mediums, explore new habits. It reverts back to what I said earlier, creativity isn’t in genetics. Talent is a pursued interest,” he said.

Armstrong looked back at the painting. The river drips over invisible banks and is swallowed by the blackness of space, a marriage between the real and surreal. The man in the boat looks at the vortex of color in awe as his boat drifts towards the center, rapt in a serene pursuit of interest.

Brendan Deady can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @bdeady26.

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