When Ursula Xanthe Young moved from San Francisco to Grass Valley, her art took on a new life in murals
Her muses gaze down from Midtown’s concrete walls with deep ocean eyes. Women with halos of flowing locks watch over Sacramento, their stares haunting, soulful and mesmerizing. These are the images painted on the backs of buildings, meant to subtly infuse the city blocks with thought, beauty and color.
Her vision isn’t like the rest of ours, but it’s the world Grass Valley painter, illustrator, designer and mural artist Ursula Xanthe Young creates in her studio—a 30-foot yurt made of canvas and pale wood—in the forest.
Young is a transplant to the Sierra Nevada foothills and to the Sacramento region—she was born in England, though her roots branch all over the world. She has studied art in New York City; Vermont; Florence, Italy; Oslo, Norway; and London.
Head for the Hills, a group show featuring her work, opens Thursday, April 25, at Art.Discovered in Grass Valley, where Young has lived for the last six years. The exhibition, which spotlights her recent nature-inspired pieces, is a collaboration with Luna Rienne Gallery in San Francisco.
The show celebrates Young’s pursuit of the hills, a place altogether different from San Francisco, where she spent 10 years working as an artist. There, she soaked up every bit of energy she could, from the colorful women who now fill her imagination, to the Victorian homes colored turquoise and lavender that have built themselves into her canvases.
“They are sort of urban fairy tales or dreamscapes,” said Young of her paintings. “But they also have a modern art nouveau feel to them.”
Being near Sacramento also inspired Young to pursue a new avenue: murals. She got involved with Few and Far, an all-girl graffiti and street-art crew. Last year, she collaborated with the group on two murals in Sacramento.
Now, her large green, tan and brown woman can be found on the back of Consolidated Electrical Distributors at 24th and R streets in Sacramento. A few blocks away on a building at 19th and I streets, a burlesque-style, doe-eyed lady gripping a blue feather is painted in crimson.
Young paints no matter what the circumstances are, whatever the weather. She worked on one mural last October when the temperature was 98 degrees, and the other on a cold and drizzly Thanksgiving eve.
“I felt like that was dedication to art right there,” she said. “It always feels good to take it outside.”
And Young has enjoyed getting outside lately. The home she shares with her husband, chef and music producer Tom Cloutman, and their 2-year-old daughter, Bali, is surrounded by towering pine trees and open space.
Immersed in the woods, parts of nature have infused themselves into her painting: butterflies flutter across camouflagelike skies, and sprigs of branches and leaves burst from corners.
“Since moving from [San Francisco] to the foothills, I’ve come full circle and use nature more and more as my backdrop and inspiration,” Young said. “I love to find new flowers and butterflies to add to paintings. … I love hearing the birds and deer outside as I work.”
Growing up, she was drawn to children’s-book illustrations, the old Victorian kind with tiny details on every page. She used to draw in her room for hours. Her father, Nigel Young, remembers this, his young daughter with her crayons and paper, so concentrated. It is not unlike how she works today.
“She really is very intense when she is working,” her father said in a phone interview from his home in England.
The artist credits her parents largely for guiding her in her creative venture.
“My parents really saw how much I love it and helped channel me toward schooling that took art seriously,” said Young, who earned a bachelor of arts from Parsons the New School for Design in New York in 1996.
Her mother, an anthropologist specializing in the Balkans, and her father, a professor of peace studies, started taking their daughter to the Guggenheim and Louvre museums of the world as soon as she was old enough. There, she saw how colors converged. She saw the way bodies and limbs were interpreted and painted by famous artists. She learned as much from the Pre-Raphaelites as she did from her father’s collection of Grateful Dead posters.
At home, she was enthralled with fairy-tale books, their lush settings not so different from the countryside outside her bedroom window.
They lived in the rugged, rural landscape of Birmingham, England, and its Yorkshire Dales National Park. With a British accent that still lingers in her voice, she describes the landscape of her childhood: filled with idyllic villages, roaming sheep, big skies, green fields and old stone walls.
Now, these larger-than-life ideas sneak into Young’s own style. She often paints her muses—luscious women, both clothed and not—as well as enigmatic cityscapes. She recently realized, while going through old family photos, that some of the women who present themselves in her paintings resemble one of her biggest inspirations: her own “mum.”
The women appear supernatural and jump off the canvas with knowing eyes, pouty red lips and often bare breasts. The clouds, waves and homes have as much life and personality as the over-the-top female figures.
Her technique is all her own, combining strategic tools from design school with her flirty, playful and color-obsessed self. While the outlines are the most grueling and require her constant focus, Young enjoys painting the girls’ unique rich tones the most. Rarely depicted with a solid color, the human skin is rendered here in a palette of brush strokes: soft pink, beige, mint green and sunflower yellow.
“[Her work has] a lot to do with magic and spirituality and looking at the world in a different way, yet still grounded and with real place and people,” Nigel Young said.
Olivia Ongpin, owner of Luna Rienne Gallery, where Young has displayed her art for several years, said Young’s works are illustrative and have a strong quality of line, as well as narrative. People are immediately drawn to Young’s art, Ongpin said.
“People of every race will walk in and identify with the ladies,” she said.
Feminine. Flowery. Fairy tale. That’s how Young describes her vibrant works. She doesn’t like to put her work—or herself—into a category, but when pressed, offers this description: “I guess I fall into the urban-contemporary, surrealist, illustration, low-brow movement.”
She tends to show at those types of galleries, and her work was featured in a recent book, titled Newbrow: 50 Contemporary Artists.
“I kind of like that term,” she said.
Certainly, it fits.