Skot Armstrong

A long and harrowing account of how and where the artist grew up

Behind the beige paint, each of the identical housing tracts throughout our county houses freaks and lovers. Take the one in Buena Park where Skot Armstrong lives—near an electrical-generating station and the Wax Museum. Even though we've been friendly for some years now, Armstrong, a pathologically shy artist, wanted to conduct our interview about his extraordinary art and life by e-mail. Once his replies began pouring in, a Q&A seemed as unnecessary as an appendix or the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

You may find Armstrong, with his companion, Jim Fallon, sitting silently on the couch at a party with members of Throbbing Gristle. You might spot him, out of the corner of your eye, skulking at a number of art openings here and to the north. If you are ever at the most cosmopolitan kind of party in the hills of Altadena, expect Armstrong to be holding down a corner of the Zen garden. He will be silent, among random figures of 1970s greatness and Melissa Manchester's tour manager. He is greatly loved, and he is everywhere. But very, very quietly.

Here, for us, Skot Armstrong becomes verbose.

A Long and Harrowing Account of How and Where I Grew Up

I was born in Montgomery, West Virginia, on Sept. 16, 1955, two months after Disneyland first opened. My mother was a nurse, and my father was an electrical engineer. Both came from rural West Virginia. Although they were not inclined toward art or literature, I was taught to read by the time I was three, and they bought a set of encyclopedias the moment I could. (I was included in a UCLA study of gifted children because of this the following year.) I am an only child, if you don't count the sister who lived 36 hours.

1. I play a voyeur in a famous Madonna video. The director "discovered" me at an Andy Warhol art opening.

In 1958, my dad landed an aerospace job in California. We moved to Santa Monica, where my mom landed a job at California Rehabilitation Center (CRC). This was a palatial and beautiful building on the beach in Santa Monica. Many of the patients were rich, though when we took them on outings, people would point and stare because they were burn victims or something else that was visually unacceptable. This was my first exposure to big money, and it made for a strange juxtaposition. On the one hand, when we would visit these people at home, they would have elevators in their homes and private hair-dressing salons. On the other hand, when I was pushing them in their wheelchairs, people would recoil.

CRC was just a stone's throw from Pacific Ocean Park (POP). Back in those days, it was relatively inexpensive to visit, and it became my regular Friday night activity with my mom. POP was on a pier over the ocean and had about it a genuine air of menace. The scary, dark rides were really scary, and the pier was usually full of sailors on leave and other sorts of people who might not qualify as "family-friendly."

When I was four, we moved to a slightly better apartment. A photograph of me taken there bears this caption:

Scott. We had been shopping. Scott has records, OF COURSE.

My best friend at the time boasted an uncle who was an astronaut and a single mother (unheard of then) who hung around with the beatniks who lived on the Santa Monica Pier. (The apartments over the merry-go-round featured a colony of actual beatniks who became famous.)

In kindergarten, my mother was called in for an emergency meeting with my teacher because I was too polite. She said I would never survive in the world unless I became less polite.

In 1962 (just in time for second grade), we moved to a house in Culver City. This was the year I first visited Disneyland. I thought at the time that compared to POP, it was very lame. POP had been scary and dangerous; by contrast, Disneyland seemed too safe. The example I remember most vividly was that POP had a sky ride that took you over the ocean; at Disneyland, the sky ride seemed tame.

In 1963, we moved again to Mar Vista. It is worth noting that each time we moved, I had to switch schools and make new friends. As an only child of parents from rural West Virginia (who were themselves quite overwhelmed to be living in the "big city"), I didn't have ongoing friends to compare notes with about what was and wasn't normal. So, in a sort of a vacuum and with only my imagination to guide me, I developed a very unique worldview. Another factor about this place and the place before was that I had a separate "clubhouse" space in the garage. By some fluke of luck, both rentals included a room within the garage that I could call my own and in which I set about to re-create the scary, dark rides of POP. Puppets were a huge obsession with me, and I became an accomplished puppeteer. My current photographic work has very deep roots in this period.

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