See Armstrong collection in COURIER video

Describing art is a fraught enterprise, subject to interpretation, bias and the motivation of the interpreter.

Every now and then, someone gets it right on the nose. Take “Living With Clay,” up now through April 20 at Claremont Museum of Art.

Link to YouTube clay video

The exhibit showcases a portion of the collection of David and Julie Armstrong, Claremont residents and founders of the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona. The couple has been living with their ever-growing collection of ceramics for decades, and has become pillars of ceramic art in America by caring for, supporting and promoting the form and its artists.

CMA hosts a free and open to the public opening reception for Living With Clay from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, February 2. The museum is located at 200 W. First St., in the Claremont Depot.

Over 60 years the Armstrongs have amassed a collection that is both comprehensive and eclectic.

Mr. Armstrong didn’t grow up interested in art. He might have become an athlete, coach, or even a furniture maker. Fresh out of Upland High School, his primary focus when he enrolled at Pomona College in 1958 was playing football.

“All my friends were athletes and these macho guys,” Mr. Armstrong said. “We really kind of looked down on our friends that were taking art.”

The college freshman’s trajectory was forever altered though after learning Pomona required he take an art class. His gridiron buddies suggested he take ceramics.

“I could play in the mud on the football field, and then play in the mud in the classroom,” Mr. Armstrong said. “It made sense.”

Mr. Armstrong’s college years fortuitously coincided with the “American Clay Revolution,” when ceramics morphed from craft to a vibrant art form. His first professor at Pomona, Paul Soldner, would go on to become one of the icons of 20th century ceramics. His influence can’t be overstated: More than 200 of his students became ceramics teachers.

“That’s how he inspired his students,” Mr. Armstrong said. “Clay became a major portion of our lives.”

That first ceramics class, taken on a lark, intrigued Mr. Armstrong. It led to more, and by the time he graduated in 1962, he had 23 units of ceramics.

“It’s been kind of my life,” he said. “I find that my professional career has been centered around ceramics, and my avocation has been ceramics, and it’s kind of in my blood, you know?”

Another life altering moment occurred during his sophomore year at Pomona, when he met an incoming freshman.

“I was smitten at first sight. I thought, ‘This is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.’” But that freshman, an art history major named Julie McRoberts, wasn’t interested.

Six months passed, and with his entreaties unsuccessful, the lovesick sophomore decided he’d volunteer as a live model (clothed) in Julie’s drawing class. The ruse to get her attention lasted just two days, as the professor determined he wasn’t model material.

“But the mission was accomplished,” Mr. Armstrong said, “and I was able to go out with Julie,” he said. Three years later, they were married.

After graduating from Pomona in 1962 he did a stint in the US Army. In 1966 his father died, and he and his mother took over the family’s furniture business.

He discovered that he had no passion for furniture, and retooled the business to manufacture decorative accessories, tapping a niche in limited edition collectible plates. The 1970s were boom years, and the business grew to become one of the top manufacturers in the United States.

In 1975 he met comedian Red Skelton, who had been having success selling his paintings of clowns. Mr. Armstrong approached him with the idea of a series of themed collector plates featuring Mr. Skelton’s clown images. The partnership lasted until Mr. Skelton’s death in 1997, and grew to include dozens of plates and figurines.

In 1989, with the collectible plate business on the wane, Mr. Armstrong returned to school. He earned his master’s degree in fine arts in 1993 from Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University). His ceramics teacher? Again, Mr. Soldner, who was then at the tail end of his storied career as an instructor.

The seeds for AMOCA were sown in the late 1990s, when Mr. Armstrong started buying up and rehabilitating commercial property in the then-struggling Pomona Mall area, which was populated mostly by vacant storefronts.

“At one time you could roll a bowling ball down Second Street, and the only thing you would hit would be a couple of transients,” he said.

He began creating lofts, and soon the artists were returning to downtown Pomona. Amidst this rebirth, he had the idea to establish a home for the Armstrong’s burgeoning ceramic art collection.

“I looked around and tried to find another museum of that kind, and I found that there weren’t any,” he said. “There was nothing on the West Coast of the entire United States.”

The American Museum of Ceramic Arts opened its doors in 2004 in a 3,500 square foot building on South Garey Avenue. Opening night for the maiden exhibition—appropriately, “The Life and the Work of Paul Soldner”—drew more than 1,200 visitors.

The museum quickly outgrew its modest home, and Mr. Armstrong began searching for a larger space. In late 2008, one of Pomona’s oldest businesses, Pomona First Federal Bank, went under. The PFF space was certainly large enough, with 51,000 square feet on two and-a-half acres and 139 parking spaces. But something else sealed the deal.

“There was this absolutely wonderful Millard Sheets mural on the wall, ‘The Panorama of Pomona Valley,’ one of the best murals Millard ever did, and there it was,” Mr. Armstrong said. “And Julie said, ‘You’ve got to save this mural.’”

The museum purchased the property in 2010. After an extensive renovation, AMOCA’s new home opened its doors in November 11, 2011.

The museum has grown to house several exhibition areas, a studio, and has become the largest facility of its kind in the United States. “It’s a cultural treasure that I hope everyone can be proud of,” he said. “I know Julie and I are.”

Mr. Armstrong, now 78, stopped short of calling “Living With Clay” a culmination of his life in ceramics. He’s still collecting, is still on the board of directors at AMOCA, and is by all accounts just as fired up (sorry, I had to) about clay as he’s ever been.

“I think it’s really important that people from Claremont know and recognize the importance of some of the artists that lived in Claremont or visited Claremont, because they’ve certainly left their mark,” Mr. Armstrong said. “And to preserve that heritage that Claremont has, my hats off to the Claremont Museum of Art.”

—Mick Rhodes


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