Finding a niche and then gamely sticking to it, is what artists do. But making small trees for private collectors also has a horizon. Armstrong knew this. In 2013, during a residency at the Nirox Foundation, a place where trees and monkeys are in abundance, she had an opportunity to rethink her practice. Go big, suggested Nirox founder Benji Liebmann.
Surface Weight (2013), a flat-topped steel sculpture with root-like tendrils of varying lengths, bears out Liebmann’s advice. It is nearly three metres tall and five metres wide. Notionally a departure from her previous work, Surface Weight in fact isolated and scaled-up the subterranean base of her earlier tree sculptures. First exhibited on the 2013 Winter Sculpture Fair at Nirox, Surface Weight was later acquired by Standard Bank for their new offices on Baker Street, Rosebank.
That same year, Trevyn and Julian McGowan, the design tastemakers behind Southern Guild, approached Armstrong to produce bespoke furniture pieces. The request culminated in a range of steel benches in the style of Armstrong’s Surface Weight sculpture. In 2014, the Nelspruit-born sculptor accompanied her one-off bench Creep to Design Miami/Basel in Switzerland. Armstrong revelled in the “workmanship, ingenuity, experimentation, obsessiveness and detailing” of the other works on show.
“As a sculptor I could scrutinise welds, muse over methodologies, and marvel at techniques much more than at the art fair,” Armstrong says in a wide-ranging interview appearing in her exhibition catalogue. “I felt a freedom to be with the objects for the objects’ sake; they were not heavy with wanting meaning and reason. There was something liberating in that.”