Artist Profile Story by Mara Severin
Jeanne Young’s serene and reflective paintings belie her early beginnings: A nomadic, unpredictable childhood growing up in the remote logging camps of Southeastern Alaska.
One of her earliest memories is of watching her father skin a bear on the floor of the abandoned ice-cream parlor where her family was living. “When I was growing up things were wild and exciting,” she says. “There were no limitations. No physical limitations. No societal limitations. My father taught me that I set my own limitations in life.”
That life, lived in the outdoors, was full of beauty. But it also had a dark side. “There was violence and drug use,” Jeanne recalls. And her father, while supportive, was often unstable. Jeanne sought refuge in art. “Art was an escape,” she says. “Art was a safe place I could go and something no one could take away from me.”
Jeanne’s current life, with her husband and four children in Wasilla is considerably less erratic. But she still creates a safe escape in her work. Gentle animals in repose, little girls in tutus, still-lifes with homey objects like shoes, stuffed toys, tea-cups and a vintage Mixmaster. Her style, couched in-between realism (which she likens to “novel-writing”) and impressionism (which she considers “poetry”), create a diffused and dreamy mood. Her paintings are comfort on a canvas.
“There’s so much psychology that goes into composition,” says Jeanne. “I like things to be close and happy.” Indeed, there is a strong sense of intimacy in her work. Little girls whisper into each other’s ears. Women share confidences across a café table, their faces close. A couple shares a meal at the counter of Snow City Café evoking the tender nostalgia of Norman Rockwell. In Jeanne’s world, even the animals are paired off – little lambs, mated swans. “I have to tie things together,” says Jeanne. “Even if there isn’t an obvious connection in the subject, I will find ways to connect them together."
Even fishing boats – a favorite subject of Jeanne’s – are humanized and relatable. “I love to spend time at the harbor with fishermen. Their boats are a metaphor for life,” she says. “Is the boat well-kept? Is the equipment organized?” she asks. “Some of us stay tied up to the docks and some of us go out in the ocean and test the elements. Do we deal with these situations and return? Or do we get lost?”
In 2010, Jeanne took a sculpture workshop at Arctic Fires Bronze in Palmer and a new passion was born. Her work now can be found at the Kodiak Swimming Pool (as part of the 1 percent for art program). The installation, “Ready, Set, Go,” depicts three “student” swimmers – a bear, a sea-lion and an otter – standing pool-side ready to take the plunge. They’re outfitted in flowered bathing suits, the bear wears goggles, and they all wear a hopeful, happy expression. “I wanted it to be comforting to the kids who come to swim,” says Jeanne. “What I like about sculpture is that the kids can touch it and climb on it. I really want art to be accessible.”
This year, another of Jeanne’s animals will come to life at the Anchorage Fire Station #6 (another 1 percent for the arts contract). A brave, bronze, fire hose-towing Dalmatian will begin assisting Anchorage firefighters, if only symbolically.
In recent years, Jeanne has shared the benefit of her experience by teaching art workshops. “It’s frustrating not being able to say what you want to say,” she says of new students, “but you have to put in the brush-miles.” Helping artists find their artistic path has been eye-opening. “People get so frustrated at every mistake,” she says. “Not finding success immediately, keeps them from wanting to paint.” This is when she wants to be most encouraging. “You’re in the process of building something beautiful, so you’re going to make mistakes,” she says. “Don’t sweat it. Keep practicing. Keep working. Your mistakes end up being your style.”
Jeanne sees “our weaknesses and our flaws,” as part of a “beautiful tapestry.” This forgiving, tender view of humanity – the willingness to seek out the good and accept the bad – is what makes her own paintings so joyous and uplifting.
“All paintings are a self-portrait,” she says. “Putting paintings out there is like dancing naked in front of a crowd.” But Jeanne Young is clearly not afraid to dance.