Velma Olga Novotny Armstrong

1913, Diller, Nebraska ‒ 2011, Fort Collins, Colorado

Painter of Nebraska frontier scenes featured at the Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice, Nebraska, Velma Armstrong lived much of her long life in that region. Her paintings, according to the Omaha World-Herald, are “of special interest” and “depict the life of pioneer Nebraska homesteaders. All done in oil, they include portraits, pastoral scenes and homestead interior scenes.” (May 5, 1963) The Monument, dedicated June 10, 1962 and administered by the National Park Service, is a major tourist attraction in Nebraska and includes some of the first acres claimed under the Homestead Act. Velma Armstrong’s depictions are unique and especially appropriate to their venue because they reflect personal stories she heard from early settlers who included her parents, grandparents, and other local persons, many of whom broke the prairie sod.

Velma was born and raised on a farm near Diller just south of Beatrice, one of nine children of Joseph and Antonia (Klima) Novotny. They were industrious Bohemians who, with expanded family, prospered enough to acquire four farms in addition to their original land. In 2003, when the artist was 90 and still very sharp of mind although had failing eyesight and unsteady hands, she provided much information of ‘those days’ to Chris Amundson. He then wrote a lengthy story about her life, which was published in 2003 in the magazine, Nebraska Life.

The youngest of her large family, Velma recalled a mostly care-free childhood, where she could “just roam the farm and get in on the goodies.” This freedom allowed open space mentally as well as physically and nurtured her creativity because she had time to savor impressions while sitting quietly in orchards, watching animals, and hearing stories from her parents and neighbors. Observing her as a youngster doing sketches, her parents were neither encouraging nor discouraging of her art. However, they were intent on her getting an education so she could earn money.

In spite of being told by the Diller High School superintendent that Velma should have formal training in Chicago, the Novotnys sent her to Nebraska State Teachers College (now Peru State College) in Peru, Nebraska. There she completed the ‘practical’ two-year (1932-1933) teacher-preparatory course. But, thanks to her art instructor, Velma was able to satisfy her desire to paint because this faculty member encouraged, advised, and loaned Velma art supplies with the agreement that in exchange Velma would translate letters the teacher had received from her Czech-speaking family in Omaha.

Returning to Beatrice, Velma taught school for two years, and then on May 28, 1936 when she was age 25, she married Oren Claude Armstrong, Jr., age 31. A barber, he had been living in a rooming house and working in a Beatrice barbershop. The couple had nine children, like her parents, and lived in Beatrice until World War II took them to San Pedro, California where Oren was a Navy shipyard worker. They returned to Beatrice after the war, but moved to Fort Collins, Colorado in the 1950s where they lived for the remainder of their lives. Oren died at age 74 in 1983.

During the years she was very active as a wife and mother, Velma received no special recognition as an artist, although she continued painting for pleasure and for portrait commissions. With agreement from author Mari Sandoz, Velma did a portrait of Mari’s deceased father, Jules Sandoz, the main character in the Mari Sandoz novel, Old Jules. In the 1950s, Velma consulted with regionalist painter Terence Duren of Shelby for advice and evaluation, and he encouraged her to do subjects that were comfortable and familiar such as the “old country” of her Bohemian family. But in discussing this advice with her husband and telling him she had no memories of that ‘old country,’ she took her husband’s advice, which was to “paint about the homestead people,” the ones she knew personally.

While she was in Beatrice, Velma did extensive recording of stories of the oldest people in the area, and also did research at the Beatrice Public Library. These efforts resulted in 12 paintings, which she kept in her possession until 1960 when she was living in Colorado. The Homestead National Monument Parks Service representative “came knocking on Velma’s door with one thing in mind: her paintings.” According to her recollection, he wanted all 12, but she agreed to sell only 11, keeping one for herself because it had special meaning: “It was of a pioneer woman hanging a lantern atop a windmill at night to guide the men and cattle home. That woman was her mother.”

The other paintings with her version of the pioneer era have been featured at the Monument for many decades in the lobby, auditorium, and offices. Titles include: The Square Dancers, Breaking Sod (her father), Rock Creek Crossing, The Claim Locator, The First Homestead, To Market To Wed, and Prairie Humor. Of the paintings, Beatrice Librarian Laureen Riedesel told Chris Amundson that the “subject matter fits the homestead story perfectly.”

For many, the paintings by Velma Armstrong are an important part of that visit, but so often the impression they take away is that of the images and not the name of the artist. Knowing this, Amundson described Velma Armstrong as “one of the state’s best-known artists that no one really knows.” Velma, apparently comfortable with that low profile, responded: “You don’t always paint for yourself. You paint for others too.”

Velma died in 2011 at age 98 in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Velma Armstrong is not represented in the Museum of Nebraska Art collection.

Sources:, Jun. 2015

Museum of Nebraska Art files: Amundson, Chris, “The Homestead’s Pioneer Art: Velma Armstrong Painter of her Past,” Excerpt from Nebraska Life magazine 2003

Omaha World-Herald, newspaper: 5/5/1963, 5/3/1964

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project: Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945