Anna Youngers: An Inspiring Interview

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Age is nothing but an infinitesimal measure when attempting to qualify one’s achievements. For some, it takes years, even decades, to appropriately articulate the internal, and the dreams and thoughts that one holds inside. Others are gifted with that special intuition much earlier in life—regardless of when, this desire may someday take the form of a career. Although not many people know what their profession may be when they are still in the formative stage of their teenage years, let alone harbor the diligence required to steer that desire towards a tangible thing, there are always exceptions to the norm… And Anna Youngers is just that.
Youngers is a thoughtful, articulate woman who is well-studied in her medium and purposeful in her process. Her work is timeless, and holds a captivating quality in its representation. When she was 16 years old she began a classical apprenticeship that lasted four years, and well prepared her for her current endeavors. Youngers invited us into her studio and shared not only her stunning work, but also some valuable insight on the business aspect of art, the natural beauty of the female form, and crucial advice for new artists. Read-Absorb-Enjoy!  ~Amy

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JAM: What is the path that has led you to where you are today?

Anna Youngers: This might sound cliché, but I always wanted to be an artist. I got my love of art and my passion from my dad, who was an offset printer. He ran his out of our basement, so I grew up with printing presses in our garage. My dad was an art major in the 60’s, that was the time of Postmodernism and abstract expressionism… realist art, and Representational work was just not en vogue then. But he always loved classical painting, the Old Masters,and instilled in me that same love. He had lots of art books on the Old Masters and would take me to painting exhibitions at the Joslyn and MIA.  My mom was a chorus teacher and music performance major in college, so I grew up in a very artistic family. That helps. I have other interests too. I love science; I love biology. If I hadn’t become a painter I would have gotten into biology, probably.

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When I was in high school I was always taking [art] classes, and when I was a junior in high school I had an opportunity come up with my art teacher at the time. She had gone to an open studio here in downtown [Sioux Falls] and there were two painters who had studied in Florence, Italy. They were a married couple; one was from Sweden and one was originally from here. They had just moved here and were opening up a studio, and were going to be here a number of years just to be by his family. They were accepting students and had posted that they were looking, so my art teacher told me I needed to put myself out there and go and interview with them. I was 16 at the time, which to me now seems kind of crazy. To my surprise they took me on as one of their students, so I went everyday, starting in 2002, after school from 4:30PM until 8PM or 9PM at night. And all-day, ever day in the summers. I did that my junior and senior year of high school. After I graduated high school, they had convinced me, well—Hans [Hans-Peter Szameit] said that if this is what you want to do, you really don’t need to go to the university to get your four-year undergrad. You’re not going to learn this stuff in college. After I graduated I continued on with Hans and Sanna for two years. When I finished training with them in 2006 I got this studio space. I’ve taken workshops, kind of like continuing ed kind of workshops; I’ve been mentoring with other professional painters throughout the country. My main groundwork was done from when I was 16 to 20 years old.

Besides the two artists you had apprenticed with, are there other artists that you’ve had as your mentors? 

Yeah! I’ve felt really fortunate this whole time. I’ve been in the right place at the right time and have had people who have helped me out. People who have seen some kind of ability in me and have nurtured it to help me learn how to go forward. In town, Gerry Punt and Carl Grupp have just been hugely supportive. Scott Parsons, he’s the printmaking professor at Augustana, he started coming to figure drawing when I was studying with Hans and Sanna. We had it everyday and he would drop in and draw with the group. He had just started teaching at Augustana at that time, so I got to know him. Then when I got my own space we would share models and stuff. He’s been a really great mentor too, just locally. Although I do feel out-of-place sometimes in that there aren’t a lot of other artists that are doing what I’m doing here; this specific kind of painting. So I try to keep an open mind and look to learn anything from anybody, because skills are varied and there’s always something to learn from someone. Outside of my teachers and outside of South Dakota, there’s been a painter out in Utah, his name is William Whitaker, and I had taken a workshop with him right when I had finished my training. He was maybe 60 at the time, or late 50’s, I still keep in touch with him. He’s always been really supportive. I’m always emailing people, not as much now, but when I was starting I was always emailing or contacting people and asking them advice on stuff.

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Does that influence where you would apply for a fellowship, through contacting different people? How do you come upon those opportunities?

Scottsdale Artist School, gets really legit, professional painters to come down there to give week-long workshops. They had generous funding, so they had a scholarship fund for people under 27. A student who I was studying with drug me with him to the workshop, and that’s how I met Whitaker, and he connected me with Scottsdale. He said “You know, I’m going to be teaching down here next spring, you should apply for a scholarship.” So I did that for like four or five years, and got a scholarship every year to go down and study for a week.  It was nice, because I would get a lot of individual attention and get to network with more seasoned professionals.

The internet has just totally changed the entire world. Networking with people through online and Facebook, you know there’s a really tight group of painters following each other. I have friends on Facebook, but a lot of my feed is painters who live out on the east or west coast, so it’s nice to see other people who are my peers.

The fellowship that I went to in 2010 was the Hudson River Fellowship, and it was founded by this painter, Jacob Collins, who lives in NYC. He’s kind of a major vestige of the realist movement there during the 80’s and 90’s when realist was being revived. There’s a whole separate history to that… I had seen his work when I was in high school, and I just  loved it. His was the first probably contemporary work that I had seen that had struck a chord with me. It kind of planted that seed. This Hudson River Fellowship, he started that in 2007 or 2008 and I applied for it in 2010 and got accepted, which was super amazing. Myself and 20 other more-or-less peers, anywhere from 22-35 in age, were there for the month of July in upstate New York just out in the middle of the woods landscape painting. I actually rode up from New York City with Jacob and we got to talk and spend a lot of time with the other senior fellows who founded it. I forged a lot of connections to the New York crew and peers from Italy and Sweden and across the US.

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Tell me about your creative process. Where do you begin?

It depends on if I’m trying to do a larger, more involved composition. I’m still trying to devise a better system to come up with; it’s always so intimidating to make larger pieces. I do studies and drawings, then preparatory sketches. I just try to come up with an idea. Since my work is so representational, it’s very image led. It’s often something sparked by something I see. Sometimes it’s a color; I love capturing the effects of light–it’s so important to me and so it is key for me to get a studio that has north facing light, because it’s more constant. Painting from natural light just adds so much. It’s more beautiful, more subtle. I’m very much inspired by beauty. That may seem subjective, it’s not necessarily the particular beauty, but the light that makes things beautiful. A north light brings out a lot of different colors in subjects. So that often drives how I’ll set something up, how I’m going to light it; that’s kind of the first component. If there’s a certain model that I’ve been working with, like my Sudanese model, Zahra, who I’ve used for a couple of pieces, and she’s just very striking anyway. Just trying to think of a setting or a composition that would emphasize her striking features and her dark skin.  Whether it’s paint application—there are certain abstract elements that I’m interested in that can drive me to create a certain still-life setup so I can work with pattern or juxtaposing paint application and different textures.

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I really like Russian impressionism, and the late 19th century painting. There were so many things going on at the time. Technically, painters had such an adept understanding of drawing and the technical skills, combined with a new understanding of color from impressionism and the modernist movement was also taking off. It wasn’t realism in it’s very constricted way, it was realism kind of mixed with impressionism freed up a little bit to do it’s own things; to explore and experiment. And that’s what I find really exciting and I try to push towards it, but it’s hard because you amass all of these skills and so in my training it was so drilled in to us to have a very strong drawing foundation. I find it hard sometimes to get away from the drawing. I always spend the most time on the drawing, even when I’m painting, I’m drawing. That’s something I want to continue to develop. Sometimes I just want to do a simple study of a pear I saw at the grocery store because it still has a leaf on it and it’s beautiful.

Just the tangible… my interests in biology and understanding how things work, I’ve always been very curious and interested in science. Gerry Punt had given a discussion once on how as artists we kind of create problems for ourselves, and then find a way to solve them. So we’re problem solvers sometimes. There’s a lot of people who I think have that connection between science or biology and the arts. To me, that’s very rooted. I love the creative world and I love studying form and understanding when you’re drawing a figure. There’s such a complexity amassed all in this one figure, and if you move one part of the body every muscle adjusts, so learning how all of that works together and learning it so much so that you can almost do it from memory. I’m not at that point yet but I have elements. That really drives me a lot—the study of the natural world around me. Trying to understand better the world that we live in, in a tangible way. It’s not philosophical or anything, I just like taking things apart and understanding how the pieces fit back together. It’s kind of like drawing. Visually you’re investigating the form.

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In your portraits it seems like you focus on women as your subject. Is there anything behind that?

I don’t know, I think it’s a subconscious kind of thing that just developed. I am a woman so of course it’s easier to relate to that subject. Over countless hours of working together you develop a pretty close relationship. Monica, she’s been the subject of a lot of my work, I began working with her when I was still in my apprenticeship, so I’ve developed a relationship with her over the years, you know, and wanting to continue to utilize her. She’s become a great friend and one of my very best models. They recognize what you’re looking for in a pose or how to get back into the right position after break. It becomes kind of collaborative in a sense. Her and a number of the other women that I’ve worked with, I have four or five that I’ve used consistently. It’s more a sense of having people who I forge a close relationship and I guess since I’m a woman it’s natural for me to befriend and relate to women. I’ve had my husband model for me but he kind of hates it. As far as the figure goes, I find the female figure to be much more aesthetically interesting. It’s more sensual, it’s softer, it’s more beautiful. Guys are just kind of straight, hard angles and some awkward anatomy. If you have a really muscular guy it’s interesting to study the musculature in the back or his torso or like a really thin person is interesting in the opposite, where you can see their skeletal structure. I’m not really doing a lot of nude drawing right now, just because I’m trying to paint. I want to start having figure drawing again and hopefully I’ll get more of a mix. If I’m paying for a model, I kind of want it to be somebody that I know is reliable and that I have a relationship where they know what I expect.

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How long does it usually take you to finish a piece, or does that vary a lot as well?

It varies. I can do a piece in a couple of hours, but I usually don’t because I like to take my time on things. That’s just how I am. I wish I was a faster person, but I’m just not and I have to accept that about myself. Which is still a struggle sometimes. I’m a perfectionist. It usually takes me much longer than it should for everything, or at least I feel that way. The cool thing is I can do stuff in a day now that used to take me a week, so I am getting quicker, better. Lately, I’ve been working on all of these commissions that are somewhat restricted, so it’s nice to kind of cut loose a little bit and not be so tight. More often than not I like to take my time on things, my best work is often done when I just set out to do it as an experiment. I like that stuff the best.

Do you feel like you’re able to do a lot of stuff for yourself, or do you do a lot of commission work? 

Lately I haven’t been, because I started showing with a gallery in 2008-2010 and Darin and I had gone to Europe at the end of 2010 for three months, and when I came back the economy was in the toilet. My art did well the first couple of years that I was there and then in 2010 it was just kind of slow. I just wanted to take a break from galleries. The hard thing with galleries is it’s such a balancing act. You kind of get to paint what you want to paint, but then you lose 50% of the commission because that’s what most galleries take. It’s really more, because they also take framing costs, and you have to pay to ship it there. If the work doesn’t sell they’ll usually ship it back, but you’re still out the money for shipping it there. The gallery’s mindset is “well this sold, so you should do more of that.” So I was feeling confined and I didn’t like the work I was doing as much, and I felt rushed. I’m not a very prolific painter in the sense that I don’t work very fast, so losing 50% of the commission kind of hurts. I had a commission come up that was a larger one, here in town, so I took that on. I was able to buy a car with that. It’s not a brand new one, but it’s something, thankfully. I’ve done other smaller commissions and private sales in the past few years. I have a couple of patrons around here who has always been really supportive to me, and that in my mind is the best. That’s the best because you have a relationship with them and they like your work, but you also feel like they’re interested in you as a person and your career. They want to see you continue to grow so it feels really humbling when you think oh, these people want to see me do well. I really like that and I’d love to foster more relationships like that. My mentor told me once that all you need are nine patrons that will consistently buy your work for you to be fine. That narrows it for me. Out of all the people in the world, nine people is not that many. I can do this.

It’s kind of funny, because the more you do your own thing it’s the more that you get known for, so you just have to be careful what you say yes to. I don’t want to just be a portrait commission artist, or a still life painter. I try to be selective about what I do, to be sure my time is contributing to long-term goals. Again it’s a balancing act–sometimes you just need to pay the bills. Big picture, I feel like I’m advancing my own work and growing as an artist. Not just technical skills, but conceptually. I’m still a young artist and that same mentor mentor told me that I have a lot of time. Not to be lazy, but to kind of give me a little bit of perspective. He said you don’t get good at this until you’re my age, like your 50’s and 60’s. So I’ve always looked at it like that. Everything that I do is some sort of investment and I just need to keep going in a good direction. I’m excited to see what kind of work I’ll be doing when I’m in my 50’s and 60’s. That’s something to look forward to.

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Going back to the commission work, do you feel like you have a pretty solid sense of the business side of art?

It’s pretty straightforward, since it’s just for me. You have to do contracts and all that kind of stuff. It’s a pain. I hate dealing with the business side of things, like money and organizing my finances at the end of the year when taxes come around. Then it’s like oh crap. I have to look through the whole year and look at all of my expenses. I always vow every year I’ll be organized but I never am.

How do you decide what galleries you want to send work to?

That’s where networking and having a mentor is really helpful. You ask a lot of questions, but ultimately it’s just you learn as you go too. You make mistakes. I’ve only worked with one gallery, and I’ve had offers from other galleries to show with them, but it’s hard to know. I probably err on the side of being too cautious. It’s a lot of work to ship paintings, and you want it to be a good match. They’re your business partners, so you want to know that it’s a good fit with what kind of work they’re showing and who their client base is. A lot of galleries now are representing around 30-50+ artists, so there’s no way you can adequately represent all of those. When you walk into galleries you see what they have hanging on the walls. If you’re represented by them, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re stuff is hanging on the wall. You could be shoved in their back room. There was a gallery I went to in Santa Fe and the whole top floor was just tons of paintings stacked against a wall. If I was represented by this gallery I would be pissed. So if you are able to go and visit regularly that helps…  There is a gallery in Denver that I’ve kind of been looking into. It looks really promising, and I’d like to check into that one. It’s a little bit smaller and I really like the work that they represent, and it’s also curated by an artist, which is a little bit unusual. A lot of the gallery owners that I’ve talked to are ultimately business folks. That’s why you’re partnering with them—you’re paying them to handle the business side of stuff. I’ve turned down some galleries because I’ve felt, and maybe wrongly so, because I didn’t want them to sell my work just because they saw it as a commodity. At the end of the day, I think every artist just wants his work to be appreciated for it’s artistic merit. To us artistic temperaments, the business aspect, which deals in numbers and financial transactions, can seem a bit cold. My ideal is a gallery that is genuinely passionate about the artists they represent and investing in them. A good gallery will get you broader exposure and promote your work in magazines and other publications, as well as taking care of the sometimes unappealing business transactions. Now with the internet, which is beaming an increasingly viable alternative to the traditional brick and mortar gallery.

A lot of that feels way over my head.

Yes, it’s very intimidating. But you’re the artist, dangit. If it wasn’t for artists, there wouldn’t be galleries.  So it sometimes feels a little bit backwards. Artists are often too eager to get into a gallery–they’re supposed to be working for the artists, it should be a partnership that benefits both parties. A lot of the times I think that’s were galleries fail. What I’ve hear from veteran artists is the business has changed a lot in the last 10-20 years; and in my experience artists are a little bit more entrepreneurial now.

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Are there any artists in Sioux Falls that you feel people should be keeping an eye out for?

Reina Okawa has a lot of really cool stuff. There are a lot of young people coming out of the area. Josh Watts, he was going to graduate school at USD and he had some printmaking with mixed media. I’m really inspired by the revival of printmaking that I’ve seen coming out of the universities. A lot of the contemporary work that I see is graphic driven, which is cool. Gerry and Julie Punt do awesome stuff, and I think that their work would hold up to other artists internationally. They’re just these two little gems that are tucked away here, and they don’t really care. That’s what they want. They want their lifestyle. That’s been instrumental to me. They have a simple life with what they want. As an artist you try to find that lifestyle that’s conducive to you producing work.

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Advice for artists?

I think people coming out of undergrad have this idea that they need to have a mature portfolio, and I think that you should just throw that right out the window, that whole idea. It’s going to take years to get a mature portfolio, and I think rushing and trying to impose a style on yourself so you have a cohesive body of work can often times shortchange you in the long run. Then you’re trying to breach this surface level of maturity, but you’re kind of stunting yourself by not really exploring because you like you need to stay in the confines of the series, or whatever you decide you style is going to be.

If you’re going into visual arts, drawing is absolutely necessary for being familiar with line and form. You need to understand it inside and out. I have to tell myself this all the time too when I get overwhelmed with the business aspects of needing to find a gallery, and needing to have my website look professional—all the details. But, if I don’t have good work…that’s got to be the most important thing. Working everyday, getting good work together, that’s what makes me most satisfied. Doing work that I’m happy with. All the other things will  fall into place. I guess there are people who are really good at marketing, and maybe their work isn’t as good. There’s different skill sets. Those are the basic things. Find out your strengths and weaknesses and try to play to your strengths. You have to figure out this amalgamation of how to be a small business owner and a self-employed artist and put them together. That’s where a lot of the creativity comes together, just living from it.[]

Amy Jarding is a visual artist residing in Sioux Falls. She is a recurring contributor for JAM who loves kitsch, hates onions, and believes that anything can be a necklace if you put it on a long enough string.

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