Written by Jim Hannaford and photo by Stephen Anderson
Ray Armstrong says his memory isn’t the best, but there are some things that stand out. Like this one: “I grew up in Point Clear, and when I was very young there were artists from Fairhope who used to come out and set up their easels and paint our house.” He was a kid then, and he’s 74 now, so this was quite a while back. Ray would sit and watch them. “I told my father that’s what I want to do, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” Well, not for a living. For most of his adult life he made art when he could find a few spare hours here and there. But now that he is retired, after 33 years as a railroad worker at the Alabama State Docks, he has more time to pursue his life’s calling. And he does it routinely, at a comfortable pace, for up to six hours a day inside a unique wooden workshop he built himself on his shaded and secluded property in the Waterhole Branch area southeast of Fairhope.
A short distance from his house, this towering three-story domain is constructed from materials reclaimed from older dilapidated homes. Inside is an almost dizzying array of art alongside interesting relics from yard sales and trash heaps.
Ray’s paintings, in a crazy variety of styles, cover most of the surface area of every wall, and even more of them lean together in neat, vertical rows. He favors oil paints on both traditional and imaginative surfaces. With long gray hair, glasses, and a long gray beard, Armstrong projects a calm, hippie-like vibe. He is intensely creative but in a casual, laidback way. Everywhere you look there is something interesting to see. “I’ll work on one thing for a while, and when I get tired of doing that, I’ll work on something else.” He takes home things that somebody else no longer wants because he sees their artistic possibilities. “There was this fellow who was a professor at South Alabama, and he had all these bottles he had gotten over the years from the county dump. He passed away, and I traded his wife two paintings for them. It took me three months to move them all, making a couple of trips a week, sometimes more. I had to build wooden crates to put them in because cardboard boxes would tear open from the weight. I put them in the back of my little Datsun pickup, and it was almost dragging the ground. This was probably 20 years ago.”
For Armstrong, the bottles, some of which are marked “1/10 of pint,” are like little canvases. He might decorate them rather straightforwardly with a fish, butterfly, or shore bird, or maybe more whimsically with a woman riding a flying pelican. Painted or not, the bottles retain a bit of mystery. He doesn’t know how many there are but figures it would be impossible to count them all. He thinks they are probably at least 100 years old but isn’t sure. Many of them remain in those crates he built, which are stacked outside a storage barn on his property. Another eye-catching piece is a blade from an old sawmill that’s four feet in diameter. Naturally, he saw it as a surface to paint, so now it has separate panels that feature a great blue heron, old cars and boats, rural houses with rusting roofs, and several examples of the nude female form, which show up often in his works. “I found that saw blade in Point Clear after one of the storms – I think it was Hurricane Frederic,” he recalls. “I was going to get some hickory so I could smoke some mullet, and it had floated in from the bay.”
Nostalgia plays a part
His paintings, many in frames that he made himself, are as varied as his interests. He sometimes works from old photographs, and sometimes from his own fertile imagination. Abstract collages hang next to portraits and pastoral scenes or a loving tribute to a long-gone country store. His colorful paintings of old trucks, tractors, and farms are realistic to a degree but have an unusually expressive look and feel. Nostalgia brings him comfort. He builds dioramas of old general stores and wooden models or 19th Century trains and intricately crafted horse-drawn wagons loaded with people in their Sunday finery. The first floor of his workshop has a high shelf full of them, just a few feet from a scroll saw, and they are covered in sawdust from more recent projects. “I used to sell a lot of those,” he says, pointing toward a horse-and-buggy that’s a couple of feet in length.
Armstrong is not a recluse, but he does spend a lot of time close to home. When he’s not creating art or tinkering with something else on his property, he likes to ride one of his bicycles, 10 miles or so each time. He studied for a period with Mobile artist William Nolen-Schmidt and used to be more active in the arts community. In earlier years he would set up each year at the annual Arts and Crafts Festival in Fairhope. He says he’s sold hundreds of paintings over the years, but doesn’t anymore. “I don’t need anything. I’m happy. I’m retired, and I have a good income,” he says. “This is what I do, and this is what I want to do the rest of my life.”