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Boone artist’s mental struggles topic of documentary

By Mark Washburn
mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com

William Armstrong Jr. was known in Boone as the tortured artist who sold his works on the sidewalk outside the drug store.

He went by Wiili, and his works – painted on canvas, rocks and even an old ironing board he scavenged from the dump – reflected his struggle with bipolar disorder: vivid colorful pieces created during his manic phases and dark, morbid compositions made while depressed.

Armstrong is the subject of a documentary at 5:30 p.m. May 13 on WTVI (Channel 42) created by LG Walker Jr. and Dan Morrill, who collaborated last year on a special about smoke jumper Raymond Thompson.

Walker, a retired Charlotte surgeon, was captivated in the late 1990s by one of Wiili’s pieces on a visit to the mountains. Hanging in a coffee shop, it was a complicated work with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden surrounded by the animals, the serpent and, of course, the apple.

“I asked the proprietor who had done it,” Walker says. “He said it was by a street person over in Boone.”

Walker eventually found Wiili in his cluttered apartment on King Street in Boone, where he supported himself with welfare checks and what he could get from hawking his art. “He was more than somewhat unkempt,” Walker says. “He was very gracious and showed us some of his paintings.”

Walker bought some that day and over the next six years acquired about 30 pieces. He found some of the works visionary, others haunting. “He felt somewhat persecuted by the world. He painted befitting his moods. When he was manic he’d paint bright, very attractive things, maybe do 40 canvases a night. When depressed, it’d often turn to angels, crucifixions, things like that.”

Wiili was known in Boone as a social outcast who had problems with alcohol and drugs. Few people knew his intelligence was measured at 160 when he was growing up in Parkersburg, W.Va., and was a poet on the side.

In the documentary, “From Billy to Wiili: An Artist’s Bipolar Journey” narrated by former WSOC (Channel 9) anchor Bill Walker, Wiili’s family members talk about his difficulties. When he’d ask for money, they’d turn him down, knowing he wanted it for narcotics or booze.

Morrill, a history professor at UNC Charlotte whose last documentary for WTVI was about Mecklenburg’s vanishing rural landscape, is an amateur producer whose shows will probably win no Emmys for production values. But he has a knack for finding and telling little-known and fascinating stories about the region and its people.

“Wiili was one of the most memorable people up there in Boone,” says Morrill. “They all say that. We encounter people who stick in our brains. … He wanted to be loved and embraced but couldn’t pull it off because his moods were so erratic. It’s that liberation from convention that made his art.”

Wiili’s works hang in galleries now. On May 12, the Hickory Museum of Art will open a three-month exhibition with 60 of his pieces. At 7 p.m. July 12, there will be a gallery talk at the museum with Sue Kneppelt of the Gateway Gallery speaking on developmental disabilities and creativity.

Wiili was found dead in his Blowing Rock apartment in 2003, probably of heart disease. He was 47.

Media Movers

WBT-AM (1110) morning host Stacey Simms is on the mend after she began having liver problems as part of an unusual reaction with medication she takes for her back. She’s been off for two weeks and hopes to return to the morning shift possibly next week. … Keith Larson gets a new contract a week after announcing on his show that WBT-AM had decided not to renew him. Neither Larson nor management would disclose the terms of the new agreement. …

Local winners in the N.C. Associated Press broadcast awards were WBTV (Channel 3) for best newscast; WCNC’s (Channel 36) Stuart Watson, John Gray and Jeremy Markovich for enterprise documentary and Watson and Gray for enterprise investigative; and WBT’s Jeff Sonier for investigative reporting and series. …

WSOC’s (Channel 9) Linzi Sheldon broke the eye-opening story of the week, the continuing payout by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority to former CEO Tim Newman. “Simple curiosity” led Sheldon to the story, says Julie Szulczewski, news director. When Sheldon couldn’t get answers about the payout, the station’s attorney got involved, prying them open under the state’s records law. …

“Wilson’s World” host Jon Wilson on “Fox News Rising” (WCCB, Channel 18) and Monica Palumbo, a former Miss Sprint Cup now on Ace & T.J. on WHQC-FM (96.1), have been named emcees for the 10 days of racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway beginning May 18. Wilson was also recently named to the advisory council for the USO. …

Matt Harris and Ramona Holloway of WLNK-FM (107.9) are honored with the communication and leadership award by Toastmasters International District 37. … Mayor Anthony Foxx will be a guest on “Washington Journal” 9:30 a.m. Sunday as CSPAN’s Campaign 2012 Bus visits Charlotte on its North Carolina tour. After the interview, the bus will visit UNC Charlotte at noon. … American Advertising Federation/Charlotte will honor Charlie Elberson, vice president of client engagement at Wray Ward, with its annual Silver Medal award at a luncheon May 31. …

Airing at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WTVI (Channel 42) is a new Beverly Penninger production, “From The Heart,” a special produced for the Junior League of Charlotte about bullying through the stories of adolescents targeted because of disabilities, their size or weight or sexual orientation. Among those interviewed are Anne Tompkins, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolinas. It is narrated by R&B singer and South Meck High School grad Anthony Hamilton. … Twins Randy and Jason Sklar visit Pit Crew University in Mooresville and Charlotte marketing firm Red Ventures for a “United Stats of America” episode about time, 10 p.m. Tuesday on the History Channel.

Washburn: 704-358-5007; mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com
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