Roger Joseph Armstrong
There’s a certain slice of masochism that resides in every artist. I’m convinced of it. What other species can get so elated over the torture of the unknown that lies within a blank sheet of paper? It’s beyond elation, really. It's borderline orgasmic. You pick up your pencil or brush and stare into the vast void before you. The aforementioned emptiness returns the favor. Your palms begin to sweat. You absentmindedly bite your lower lip as you swallow hard. The words, “Now what?” slowly creep into your mind. Then…it happens. That flash when the unknown becomes one with your hand and the creation takes over. “Paint from the heart,” Roger once told me. “The rest will take care of itself.”
I was hanging out at Roger’s studio one afternoon when his legendary “brush man” dropped by with the latest samplings of his wares. From Roger’s point-of-view it was the equivalent of Santa arriving with his bag of goodies. Roger, of course, encouraged everyone—and I do mean every single person in the studio (student or not)—to rush outside and look at all the brushes. “Touch them!” he instructed. Honestly, he acted like a 9 year old who just caught the aroma of fresh baked apple cinnamon cookies emitting from his grandmother’s kitchen. With a little encouragement I do believe he would have actually salivated. And, of course, his flock obeyed and dashed outside to the bristled treasures that awaited them. He sat in the shade and scoped out the brushes that were sprawled out on large tarps beneath the trees. He instructed certain individuals to try specific brushes; each carefully selected within his mind and eye for each artist. And, of course, each was a perfect match.
He looked up at me, his eyes twinkling beneath the brim of his straw hat, and said, “Well, don’t just stand there! Pick out some brushes!” I caved and did as I was told. I knew better. To tell Roger ‘no’ was a waste of time and, frankly, just plain silly. A while later he asked me to show him the brushes I had chosen. He took them in his hands, touching them the way one would handle a priceless treasure, and nodded. He handed them back to me and said, smiling oh-so-mischievously, “You want to paint something, don’t you?” I had to laugh. Why? Because he was right. I did want to paint something. And I hadn’t painted a stroke in over 10 years.
The man’s enthusiasm was contagious. Roger could get you worked up over virtually anything. He found magic and wonder in the simplest stuff. He revealed joy in the smallest of things; the bits and pieces we take for granted. He once asked me, “Have you ever really just watched how people walk?” It wasn’t really a question. It was a rhetorical observation of fact. His keen eye, and hand, caught everything and missed nothing. And with that combination he put beauty into it all. Roger was the spiritual embodiment of a wide-eyed kid who just happened to have direct access to the wisdom of the ages.
Roger always welcomed our meandering band of cartoonists into his studio with open arms. He fueled each of his comic strip brethren with inspiration, motivation and true friendship. His experiences painted lessons for each of us in an array of dazzling verbal colors. Roger was the heart and soul of our group. But I doubt if his easy-going humble demeanor ever allowed him to realize it.
I knew of Roger the cartoonist long before meeting Roger the man. His influence on me, prior to that introduction, is staggering. It grew in leaps and bounds afterward. To watch him effortlessly hold a pen as the magic drew from its tip left me awestruck. When I do that I just have a collection of chicken scratching while Roger would have the beginning of a full-blown gallery exhibit. Watching him work left me speechless. And that says a lot considering the only thing that can usually thrust me into a state of silence is a roll of duct tape and a rap on my skull.
Roger lived an amazing life. Not just for the experiences he had or the people he met along the way. Not really even for the many truly deserved accolades and recognitions he has received. But for the simple fact that he lived a life doing exactly what he loved. He lived to be. And it is that inspiration that I will always carry with me. I will forever miss him. I will miss his charm, his wit and his down-to-earth elegance. And I know I will remember him the most clearly whenever I am holding my pencil and staring into the enthralling abyss of the blank page. And it is there that I will, as Roger instructed, paint from the heart... and smile.
I have to admit that I fully expect to spend the rest of my days seeing one breathtaking sunset after another because God finally has a true master at His side showing Him exactly how to paint them.
We shall miss you, Roger. And we shall miss you well.
Charles A. Filius