Meet Her in the Garden of Unearthly Delights

Julie Armbruster’s amiably strange vision has been embraced near and far, including by the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which recently commissioned her series illustrating ominous vintage medicinal plants (right).
Portrait by Luke Van Hine

Julie Armbruster is grateful for her freed-up time in 2020. Never mind the pandemic — her world has always been weird. The illustrator’s drawings, paintings, and prints feature whimsical, animal-human hybrid characters set against surreal pop landscapes where anything can (and does) happen. 

She started creating her imaginative works while finishing a Masters in Studio Art at NYU. “My roommate and I had this idea of a free-association exercise that involved a participant who would find random words in a variety of dictionaries and would say them out loud while I would draw on a large sheet of newsprint,” she says. “The art that came out of this experience threw me into a new world of work. As my drawing skills expanded, I was able to stretch this idea to be less about materials and more about concepts.”

She became increasingly drawn to the odd and extraordinary. It wasn’t so much about capturing the exactness of a plant, for example, but about visualizing its inherent earth magic. 

 “I love that my characters emit a quirky strangeness. Their weird energy has helped me grow and adapt — and find more ways to encourage weirdos.”

Armbruster uses acrylic, graphite, and ink on paper, art board, or wood panel. She doesn’t start with a plot; she finds her stories and marvelous characters as she paints. “I will sometimes fill in the blanks, but for the most part, the stories are obvious to me when the painting is done,” she says. “Most times, I will write up a summary of the story and attach it to the back of the painting.”

Tributaries

Some characters have stories so rich they’ve taken on a life beyond the confines of the canvas. Armbruster illustrated a series of self-published zines to tell the stories of her Potato Boy and Elmore, as well as Professor Wunderbar and the F.I.F. (Feline Infiltration Front).

Working in Asheville, she’s found an enthusiastic community of fans and collaborators. And she credits her studio at the Wedge in the River Arts District with giving her a supportive platform.

Tater Tot Last Supper

“I feel overwhelmingly thankful for all of the alternative venues and early supporters that have propped me up over the years and helped me figure out a way to live my dream.”

Currently, Armbruster is working on a series of themed greeting cards for the Mütter Museum based on its garden of vintage medicinal plants, most of them deadly in some form. (The museum, administered by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, is known for its inspired, often grotesque exhibits that illustrate the history of disease.) She’s also started a three-paneled project based on Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

Intervention

“I’m lucky I don’t have the pressure of an upcoming show or any tight deadlines,” she says, putting a positive spin on the COVID era. “It turns out our current apocalypse is not one of zombie fighting, or guns, or even aliens, but of patience and being OK with having less. I think I can handle it a little longer.”

Julie Armbruster, Wedge Studios, 129 Roberts St. Studio 1B in the River Arts District. Armbruster’s art is carried by Horse+Hero (14 Patton Ave., downtown Asheville, horseandhero.com). See her work for the Mütter Museum under the “stationery” link at www.muttermuseumstore.org. For more information, visit juliearmbruster.com.

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