The three of us sat there with the sun sinking in the sky, the golden light angling through her Russell Industrial Center studio windows, casting long shadows and putting a golden patina on everything. Instead of paintings, there was a sense of cloth everywhere: There were white sheets covering furniture; there were long tables stacked with weavings and weavinglike drawings; the ironing board bears a suggestively wrinkled sheet, making it look active and domestic; there were hangers with fabric remnants floating in the corners of the room; and even the large drawings on odd-shaped paper push-pinned to the wall had what looked like ink drawings of weavings on them. It was a beautiful day, and a self-possessed yet completely accessible Elizabeth Youngblood and I sat listening to the photographer’s anxiety about the capriciousness of the art world.
Elizabeth Youngblood has, like many of us, numerous job descriptions. Currently the most pressing is being a daughter, because she and her sister are involved in the life-changing task of moving their mother from her near-westside, lifelong Detroit home into an assisted-living apartment. One could feel the palpable presence of Mrs. Youngblood in her daughter’s studio. “My mother made many of our clothes. She was a maker. In fact, I come from a family of makers. My aunts cooked, knitted, crocheted; my Uncle Oliver was a craftsman. He taught me how to make things, how to plan and execute a job so it’s done right from the beginning. So first, before anything else, I’m concerned with craft.” There were objects around the room that Youngblood had made that indeed stated their craftsmanship before their artfulness.
Youngblood, who has her own design company called S2DIO, is also a teacher at the College for Creative Studies. She teaches typography, which is an offshoot of her main professional career as a graphic designer. She spoke about teaching the nuances of different typefaces with a poetic and intelligent sureness that made me jealous of her students. For 11 years she was a successful freelance graphic artist in New York City and Philadelphia, and was on staff for the New York Times among other places. Besides beginning her art education at Cass Tech in Detroit and getting her BFA at the University of Michigan, Youngblood studied under the influential team of Catherine and Michael McCoy in the design department at Cranbrook Art Academy, where she received her MFA.
“I started in clay and graphic arts at Michigan and focused on design at Cranbrook, where I also worked with Gerhardt Knoedel in the fibers department, so I had my hands in a couple of worlds,” she said. Her education is broad-based but thoroughly grounded in craft, which is a pretty rare ingredient in art now being made.
Sitting in a deep red, winged-back chair that complemented her easygoing manner, she showed me some examples of recent work that had been in an exhibition at the National Conference of Artists in the Fisher Building. After all those years as a commercial artist, Youngblood had made a radical decision in 1993 in returning to fine art by taking a residency at the Philadelphia College of Art. While her education suited her for a career in commercial design, the more she talked, the more it became apparent that she was an artist of rare sensibility.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love graphic design. To facilitate someone in the business world who has a complex problem to solve or idea to express is a joy for me, and I won’t stop doing it.” But it seems as though Youngblood’s extraordinary talents to make things — and not simply handcrafted things but highly evocative objects that blur the traditional distinctions between art and craft — aren’t satisfied in graphic design.
Because of its title, “Blood Bag,” a beautifully complicated red weaving that she held up, immediately struck me as autobiographical. Her fingers pulled at the cotton twill as if testing its integrity. It had subtle fissures and openings in it and a splotch of darker red, like clotting blood. She talked about her preoccupation with the notion of vessels (actually, she found the word “vessel” annoyingly clichéd) which she carried over from her ceramic-art days. The woven vessels, or containers, seemed apt analogies to the body, and other pieces she showed evoked an even more direct bodily, even erotic quality.
The singular feature that distinguishes Youngblood’s work from other similar work is its attention to the signifying details of craft. Certain types of stitching are used to create a certain quality of seam. Certain weaving patterns echo certain traditions, and Youngblood is very much in control of the overall language of her work. This attention to process and its relationship with how a thing looked and what it means was everywhere in her work, thinking and use of language.
From a box on the floor she pulled out a few small pieces she simply called “objects.” Their status as sculpture or assemblage can be left for another discussion, but they prompted an almost disturbingly complex mixture of “readings.” There were two keys and two spoons that were covered in white cotton. Only the ends of the spoons and the tops of keys were revealed. At first they appeared simply as surreal objects that prompted no particular response other than a certain confused awe. The stitching that sutured the cotton closed was delicate, the white cotton itself pure or chaste. The photographer, who had finished taking pictures of Youngblood, was intrigued by the enigmatic quality of the objects and suggested her own various readings of them.
Youngblood talked about the cultural meaning of a spoon or key and what it meant to have them covered. They were perhaps bandaged, perhaps swaddled as a baby or protected. Youngblood said, “I think about them as obscured and go from there.” The inscrutable objects suggested many readings, none conclusive, all creating greater metaphoric possibility. In the long afternoon chat, it became apparent that a profound poetic vision was at the heart of her art-making.
On the wall were the large drawings on irregular-shaped paper. She talked about the drawings as conceptual representations of the dynamics of thoughts and actually talked about the topographical qualities of pursuing idea. They are fine-lined ink drawings that at once resemble weavings as well as the graphing in lie-detector tests. There were some drawings that employed black ink on white and others with black on black, the latter having the effect of being subliminal graphs. Youngblood’s investigations of the process of recording thought — and the abstract drawings created — reveal the sublime potential of her artwork. Yet in using the weaving as a model, these works remain close poetically to their roots in craft.
As we were leaving, a little ironing board that we had been discussing earlier (she called it a “sleeve board”) had got our attention again. It was wrapped in an aged cotton wrapping over a gauze padding, and it had a perfect blend of design and functionality. Her Uncle Oliver had made it for her mother. While it was beautiful as an object, even achieving its own status as an independent poetic thing, its still remained completely functional. I thought of one of the first things Youngblood had said to me, “I come from a family of makers,” and the pride in that bloodline, that cultural heritage, seems to still have a tenacious hold on her thinking and finds expression through her.
Youngblood sighed the sigh that comes from a long debate and had an almost humorous confusion about her. She held the beautiful sleeve board up as if to assert that it could be hung on a wall and displayed as a work of art.
This is the fourth and final installment of a four-part series on Detroit artists. To view all other installments, see below:
God's Gift - First Installment
Painter Ronald Warunek reimagines the whole of creation.
Portraits of the world - Second Installment
Dropping in on painter Nancy Ulvang’s life in art.
Hyde & seek - Third Installment
Quiet painter Robert Quentin Hyde speaks - and not only through his work.
Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]