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Renaissance Man

Industrious Tupelo artist, writer and preacher John Armistead fills his days doing what he loves.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem

John Armistead winces ever so slightly when the term “Renaissance Man” is used in reference to him. It happens quite often. The 81-year-old Armistead is — or has been at some time — an artist, an author, a preacher, a teacher, a motorcycle enthusiast and a Golden Gloves boxer. Still, he politely pushes aside praise for his prowess.

“Jack of all trades, master of none,” he said. “I’ve never been interested in just one thing to the exclusion of all else.”

And that’s that. Still, the bespectacled Mobile, Alabama-born man cannot hide from his accomplishments, especially when he’s standing before one of several canvases in different stages of production in his Link Centre studio, where he spends his mornings Monday through Friday painting. Included on one wall of his studio are five self-portraits done through the years; other paintings were done on his six trips to Italy, where he’s spent up to three weeks painting on-site. He’s less prone to paint still lifes and drawn more to figures and landscapes with structures, like old houses and barns.

His studio is just for making art, but at the home he shares with Sandi, his wife of 54 years, there’s a garage where he keeps frames and finished work.

Though he had a fling with acrylics in the 1970s, Armistead prefers painting mostly in oil and sometimes watercolor. He also likes drawing, working with charcoal. Truth is, he simply loves art.

“With art, you have a vision in mind that you project onto paper or canvas or whatever,” he said. “It’s not a photographic image, but an interpretation. Painting is always the ebb and flow of something. You have a basic plan, but it takes turns you didn’t expect. I can stand and paint forever.”

And stand he does. There are no comfortable stools in front of his easels. Standing helps with perspective — he can continue to move backward and forward and see his work from different distances.

Perhaps Armistead took to art because as a youngster he felt it was the only thing he could do well. He was slow to learn to read before anyone had heard of dyslexia, and he was laughed at as a third grader when forced to read aloud in class. So, he found a way to get out of reading aloud.

“I threw a spitball just before I was to read aloud,” Armistead said. “And I got sent to the cloak room, where I enjoyed eating other people’s cookies. I also stole a box of nibs the teacher supplied for our pens we’d dip in ink wells on our desks. I continued to use those nibs until about 10 years ago.”

When he was 5, Armistead was taken from the church nursery to “big church.” He had no problem behaving until the preacher started preaching, then boredom set in.

“My dad started bringing drawing tablets and would give them to me when the preaching started,” Armistead said. “Fortunately, many preachers were long-winded, and I was able to finish a drawing during the sermon. I drew on any blank surface I could find. I’d draw stories, characters and what they were doing. Drawing was the foundation of painting for me.”

His paternal grandmother was a painter, and when Armistead was 8, she sent him for art lessons from 8 until noon on Saturday mornings. He started in charcoal, then pastels, and by age 9 he was painting in oil.

His family moved to Meridian when he was 11, and in high school, Armistead discovered an interest in writing in his English classes and also in boxing. “There’s a certain notoriety in boxing,” he said. When he discovered Jack London novels, he fell in love with reading, and English and creative writing became his strongest subjects.

When he was 18, he was called to preach. He spent a few semesters at Ole Miss but graduated from Mississippi College in 1963, received a Master of Divinity from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in 1966, a Doctorate of Ministry from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1975 and a Master of Arts from Ole Miss in 1987. Armistead pastored Baptist churches from 1975 to 1994, in Hawaii and at Calvary Baptist in Tupelo. For the past 14 years, he’s been pastor at Unity Presbyterian Church in Plantersville.

“That’s a pretty good tenure for a pastor,” he said. “I wonder how many churches are willing to have an 81-year-old guy preach every Sunday.”

He spent several years as a kindergarten teacher while attending graduate school in California at Berkeley.

“Public schools were desperate for male teachers,” Armistead said. “I shaved my beard and went for an interview where I was told, ‘I’m so glad you don’t have a beard — all these boys come over from Berkeley with beards.”

Armistead got the job and also met his wife Sandi when she came to the Oakland School District to teach first grade. The Armisteads are parents to two sons and grandparents to eight.

When he was 52, Armistead wrote and published “A Legacy of Vengeance,” the first of three mystery novels set in northeast Mississippi. “The $66 Summer,” his novel for young adolescents, was named by the New York Public Library as one of the best books for teens published in 2000. And “The Return of Gabriel” has been used in schools throughout the United States to teach about the Civil Rights era. In addition to his published works, Armistead has kept a daily diary since he was 15.

On a typical day before he heads to his studio, Armistead wakes up between 3 and 3:30 in the morning, does some reading, works on his Sunday sermon and writes in his diary. He now has 60-plus volumes he’s kept of his daily writings, and, though he’d be hard-pressed to offer a hard-and-fast number, he’s finished several thousand paintings. He’s kept record books starting in 1971 of his paintings; now he photographs each painting to add to the records.

“There are years I might have done 100 paintings a year,” he said. “But now, it’s more typical for me to do 50 or 60 a year.”

Armistead doesn’t paint to make a profit, but, he said, it’s nice to sell his work. In elementary school, high school boys would commission the young artist. He did drawings of elk, Micky Mantle and portraits of their girlfriends, making some pocket change doing what he loved.

He’s also painted each of his grand-children and has kept all family paintings.

Talk of retirement elicits an expression similar to that roused by “Renaissance Man.” Armistead continues today to do what he’s done much of his life. He paints, he writes, he preaches. The only thing he’s retired is his motorcycle. On a wall in his studio is a quote from Degas and one in Latin from Pliny the Elder. Armistead reads the Latin.

“Nulla dies sine linea,” he said. “The words are held closely by artists and writers. They mean, ‘Never a day without a line.’ Clearly, it applies to painting and writing. And it’s certainly my philosophy.”

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