Ronald Young discovered a new artistic language while driving in the neighborhoods of Ville, Old North and other areas of northern St. Louis.
Painter and collage artist, he wanted to break with his old work and create something new. Then he started to feel the urge to pick up pieces of debris on the side of the road. Bricks of ruined buildings. Pieces of charred wood. Old rusty tools.
Young fashioned them into abstract sculptures that carry a deep sense of history and suggest the resilience of a community that has experienced decades of redlining and divestment.
His exhibition “The prevalence of the ritual”At the Kranzberg Gallery includes many such sculptures, surrounded by large-format photos of doors in abandoned brick buildings. The work is informed by the Ghanaian concept of sankofa – the recovery of ancient traditions – and the idea of objects of power, according to which inanimate objects possess a soul.
“People will think that I am projecting my own beliefs onto these objects. There is more to it. These objects have life, they really do, ”Young said. “We all have parents who have items that we keep and cherish for years and years. This object comes to represent that person, and it represents an idea.
Young taught art for 33 years to elementary and middle school students in St. Louis and Kirkwood before retiring early to pursue his own art full time.
His exhibition is on display on appointment until September 4.
Jeremy D. Goodwin of St. Louis Public Radio spoke with Young about how he developed his sculptural technique and what his work says about the hidden history and endurance of the historically black neighborhoods of St. Louis.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: Before, you focused on painting and collage. How did you develop the style that we see in this show at the Kranzberg?
Ronald Young: My freshman year at the University of Washington, I was tripping in the dark. I didn’t want to paint anymore. I didn’t want to work with something familiar. I wanted to have a totally new environment, a totally new language, a totally new way of working.
I just started collecting stuff. Without even knowing where I was going with it. I just started collecting materials.
Goodwin: Materials like what?
Young: Bricks, burnt wood, tools, rusty objects. It’s almost like they’re calling me. I walked down the street and saw something, slammed on the brakes, jumped, threw it in the back of my truck. I didn’t even know what to do with it.
Eventually what I began to understand was that these objects had a voice. I gave them a voice, but they resonated with me. I started to look back and understand the whole concept of objects of power.
Goodwin: What is an object of power?
Young: The concept of objects of power comes from the belief of the African diaspora that all objects in nature have a soul. And what I started to understand is that because these objects have been touched by humans, they have life. They lived a life. You can actually look at the object and you see the rust and you see the usefulness of it.
I used them to simply make a statement about the strength and resilience of the community.
Goodwin: Your exhibition at the Kranzberg, “The prevalence of the ritual“, has a lot of charred wood, pieces of rusty metal, nails, twisted ropes, photographs of doors in brick buildings in disrepair.
In the presence of this, there is a feeling of history, of continuity perhaps with the ancestors.
Young: Yes. For me, the story is that I walk down these streets on the north side. While crossing this area, I cross the City, I cross the Old North and I remember what the neighborhood looked like. And what it looks like now. And I needed to make people see what I saw. It’s this whole story that’s out there that we just don’t pay attention to or pay attention to. I think people really need to take another look.
Goodwin: You said the materials you use are the products of a city that treats neighborhoods and people as disposables. What do you mean?
Young: It’s no big secret the neglect that existed in the north of Saint-Louis. At some point in the 1980s, the mass of middle-class blacks began to leave the north of the city and settle in North St. Louis County or move away, and the neglect of the region intensified.
Then you had the brick thieves who entered. The developers were buying reused bricks. And so the people in the community – usually guys from the community – were going to take the bricks from the buildings. One of the techniques they used was to set buildings on fire. It would help loosen the mortar, and they could pick up the bricks more easily. Then people started to realize that there were other materials that they could also make money with.
Anything they could sell, they did. Much of it can be found in antique shops around Saint-Louis. So the black community has been exploited, and we are moving beyond it and accepting it. We don’t even pay attention to it.
Goodwin: I want to be sure we’re talking about some of the thematic foundations of your work, in terms of the traditions that you tap into that cross the ocean to Africa. We have talked about the objects of power. Tell me about sankofa.
Young: Sankofa is the African concept of understanding one’s past in order to move forward.
Goodwin: And it’s integrated into the heart of this project.
Young: It’s built into the heart of it. I’m more interested in things that have character. Things that have lived. That you can actually look at them and you can see, this item has been around for quite some time.
And if you stand in front, something in your guts is going to happen. A friend of mine says, you watch it until you see it.
Goodwin: Would you describe these sculptures as beautiful?
Young: Yeah. I think they are beautiful. I think they are beautiful. I often say that my job can be dangerous. If you stand too close to him, he will scratch you.
Goodwin: You mean physically dangerous.
Young: Physically, yes.
Goodwin: Don’t lean on it.
Young: But that’s the point. The works are meant to evoke a feeling of, if I stand too close to this I might get hurt. And I’m like, yeah, but the hurt the community feels – and I really don’t want to get into politics, because that takes away art.
I just wanted to make a statement about the community and the ability of people to literally let these areas deteriorate.
Follow Jérémy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin