Van Ryzin: Ann Armstrong strikes a balance between making, designing

Outside Ann Armstrong’s East Austin studio — called Ann-Made — there’s a 20-foot-long trailer on top of which is the framed-out beginnings of a tiny house, two-by-fours defining the clean, modern lines of the one-room structure.

Armstrong’s mobile tiny house is a prototype for urban living — an affordable, flexible living option that conceivably could wedge on to a property with existing residential structures in burgeoning center city neighborhoods.

It’s something Armstrong, a licensed architect, and other local tiny house advocates are actively promoting, meeting with city leaders to explore how codes and regulations can be re-thought to accommodate alternative — and affordable — options for dense urban living.

Austin is becoming unaffordable for many in the creative professions, Armstrong says. And on a recent already hot morning, the evidence is right around her.

Architectural designers who once shared the vast warehouse where Armstrong has her studio are in the midst of moving out the last of their equipment. The property owner has alternative plans for the metal-framed industrial building.

She echoes what other independent artistic professionals in Austin increasingly mention these days.

“In many ways my creative bandwidth is fully charged here,” she says. “And I want to stay. But if I get priced out, if the economy crushes my ability to make a living creatively, then definitely, I would have to move.”

Beyond the tiny house out front, Armstrong’s studio reveals the multifarious nature of her professional creative practice — one that involves metal-working, signage design, public mural-making and public art, teaching and an inventive project to engage the community creatively.

Armstrong’s art cart is a mobile pedestrian-powered stand she crafted out of a hand truck, augmenting it with other forged steel parts and a canvas canopy.

She’s taken the cart to various public happenings, including a community picnic at East Austin’s Kealing Elementary School, at which she makes art supplies available. She invites anybody to create a map of whatever they feel is meaningful to them on one of their regular routes through their neighborhood.

Children and adults participate in the map-making effort. And Armstrong offers a map of her own in exchange for every one made.

Her crowd-sourced atlas of the city is documented online as Austin’s Atlas (

“It’s a homegrown history of Austin based on personal experiences,” she says. “A map is a way to share, and the cart is a tool for spontaneous interaction. Together we can reveal what’s often hidden to many of us.”

As her own ongoing contribution to the project, Armstrong has created a series of self-guided walking tours, creating delightfully illustrated maps available online.

For one tour, “Walls and Voids,” she offers a meandering route through downtown that explores cracks, crevices and wall surfaces that are visually intriguing but nevertheless may be overlooked.

Then there’s her “Illustrated Pedestrian Guide #1: Urban Oddities,” a visual scavenger hunt of sorts that leads people on a tour of obscure places and urban sites that are hidden in the city’s midst — again, those urban moments often overlooked.

“I love to go for a walk,” she says. “Even just for 10 minutes in the middle of the day. Walking in a neighborhood where I live or work has always recharged me, reconnected me.”

Raised in San Francisco in a neighborhood adjacent to that city’s most alternatively creative Haight-Ashbury area, Armstrong grew up embracing a pedestrian-based city life, something she concedes “takes a bit of doing and effort” to have in Austin where often the lack of sidewalks, even in urban areas, makes a simple neighborhood stroll challenging.

She received her bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Oregon in 1998, then returned to the Bay Area and worked in several different firms.

The desire for deeper study landed her in Austin, where she completed a master’s of architecture at the University of Texas in 2007.

Then, just as she was finishing graduate school, she heard about the well-regarded metal-working program at Austin Community College. The temptation of hands-on making proved irresistible.

It also proved economically viable when Armstrong in fairly short order began fabricating all manner of metal design-work — stairs, railings, pergolas and outdoor structures, furniture — often working with other architects and designers.

“There’s a sincerity and accountability in working with your hands,” says Armstrong, whose lithe frame and delicate features seem incongruous with the artisanship of wrestling fire and heat to reshape steel.

Currently, she is fabricating a metal signage system that will be used in the garden of an affordable housing project by Foundation Communities.

On Second Street just to the east of Congress Avenue is Armstrong’s “Stem Racks” — a sculptural yet functional bike rack that resembles giant leaf stems.

A city-sponsored public art project, “Stem Racks” took 4 1/2 years from conception to realization, a bureaucratic process Armstrong says was “both illuminating and frustrating.”

Typically, like with her art cart and map-making project, she opts for a lighter, direct and more personal way to leave an artistic mark on the city.

She “butterfly bombed” an alleyway in East Austin with a property owner’s permission, tacking small butterflies made of flattened beer cans onto a wooden fence.

She’s created several murals around town, including one on East Eighth Street just off Congress Avenue. And another alleyway East Austin art project is taking shape, too.

“I like the unexpected,” she says. “Those moments when you encounter something completely surprising in the city.”

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