Wednesday, September 10, 2008
I first met Bob Armstrong several years ago, by not paying attention at a silent auction. The fundraiser was for Buena Vista, a Spanish immersion elementary school here in the City. After paying my six dollar winning bid for a tour of SFMOMA, I learned the tour was for kids and their parents, and would be led by Armstrong, the PTA funded art teacher at Buena Vista.
On the day of the tour, I arrived to find Armstrong surrounded by a half dozen parents and their fourth graders. Armstrong is outgoing and friendly, and with his trademark hat and soft spoken nature, comes across a little like Indiana Jones without the Pan Am frequent flier miles.
I soon found myself in the middle of an incredibly interesting and insightful art experience. One of the advantages of going to a museum with a group of kids is that they crowd around a painting and are not bashful about sitting on the floor for a more comfortable view. This swarming not only allows accompanying adults an unobstructed view of the painting, it gives us more than a brief moment to ponder the piece, as well as preventing other patrons from weaving their way to the front. Anyone who has mooed through the cattle drives at Frida Kahlo, Chihuly, and the Women Impressionists recently can appreciate this tactical advantage.
As a teacher, Armstrong uses the Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS) learning method. VTS is a way to teach critical thinking about the arts to children, to get them involved. Rather than a top down lecture about art history, Armstrong asks children what it is they see and engages them personally in the art work, then encourages discussion and shared insights.
Armstrong prompted the kids with questions about each painting, and asked them questions to expand their responses or to discuss another classmate’s viewpoint. He occasionally made a broad observation about a painting, or added historical facts, as a lead in to more questions.
We spent about 90 minutes in the first three rooms of the permanent collection at SFMOMA, after which our brains were full and we all went home for milk and cookies and a well deserved nap.
I’d seen the collection many times, but never so thoroughly and from so many different angles. I now have a half unit of credit in fourth grade art, in case I ever decide to go back and refresh my elementary school degree.
Armstrong teaches that math and art are not separate, they are interrelated. He believes art interacts with and supports academics in a direct way. Music and math are very much intertwined. The way he uses grids in his own paintings is mathematic.
Armstrong’s paintings grow out of an idea of balance and exploring texture. "Lament" from his bee series is a way to balance the geometry of the hexagon with the realism and naturalism of bees, flowers, branches.
“Aspen” shown at the top is an acrylic painting whose panels have the textured look of real aspen bark.
His current abstracts are the kimono series, which also the explore idea of balance. The series gets its name from the paintings giving the appearance of a displayed kimono.
“Cycle of Fire” shows the life cycles of a pine tree forest. Pine needles, fire, new life, new start. The fire sections are cracked like burnt wood or dry clay soil.
Bob Armstrong still teaches an occasional class for students with special needs at Buena Vista. He finds it a good way to get out and be with people in the mornings before spending the afternoon alone creating his paintings. He is active in and is the former president of the Artists Guild of San Francisco, and is often part of the Guild’s weekly public art shows around the City.
by Phil Gravitt