35 S. Kay Young


Born Manchester, Tennessee, 1952/Studied College for Creative Studies, Detroit/Lives in Detroit, Michigan

I’ve been a tree-hugger all my life,” recalls S. Kay Young, a long-time venerator of the natural world (and primarily of her Michigan environs). Of Cherokee descent, she describes herself as an “urban Indian” who became enamored of photography from an early age, acknowledging that “Photography began as inspiration from paintings and a lust for immediate, finished art.” Sunflower, with its flaming palette of red and yellow, and CB Sculpture (both 1998), with its upside-down reflections of a duo of trees bathed in blue-green hues, are choice examples of such serendipitous, quickly captured images. Circa 2011, after decades-long accumulation of a trove of silver prints, cibachromes, and film stills numbering in the thousands—and counting—Young shifted her emphasis to the sizable, labor-intensive, digitally manipulated images that have consumed her art making to the present.

Having studied photography at College for Creative Studies, followed by a ten year position at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Young has served over the last decade as adjunct instructor of photography at Oakland Community College. Also a photography instructor of special needs adults at Macomb Oakland Regional Center, Inc. in Clinton Township for a number of years, she is currently working with Suzanne Haskew Arts Center in Milford in a similar capacity. The synchronicity between Young’s art and teaching practice enables both student-surveyors and tutor-guide to light upon surprising images and points of view. Frequently escorting her students into the surrounding woods on photographic expeditions, she notes that they “shoot from angles I don’t see” as they discover their individual voices. Their exploratory efforts were on view at the Scarab Club in the 2015 exhibition “True Nature,” organized by Young. A film of a journey into the forest with another band of nascent photographers, shown on PBS’s “Detroit Performs,” was awarded an Emmy for documentary shorts.

Young’s own solo treks into the woods in weather foul and fair are often prompted by dreams in which a Native Elder serves as guide. A few years ago, after he told her where to enter the forest, look up, and capture the faces in the Spirit Trees anew, she launched a commanding, ongoing series of large-scale photographs. The results of these woodland excursions offer such contrasting moods and images as Fog (2013) and Dancing Alappin (2013), one set against a wan gray miasma, and the other, in a rare horizontal layout, silhouetted against a cloud-free, cerulean sky. The time of year differs as well as the formats, one vertical, one lateral. Both, however, are strictly symmetrical, a consequence of the mirroring of the original shot, which is repeated and rotated three times. Each composition, measuring an outsize 68 x 44,” is actually comprised of four quadrants that the artist refers to as “four-ups;” she also produces “two-folds,” generally more modestly sized designs. In either format, however, “when they meet in the middle, human faces, eyes, vaginas, penises, bodies, animals, insects, and spirits” may be espied (per the artist), visions intensified through Photoshop “painting,” especially of hues at the center or along the vertical axis.

Sheer radiance of color—and heightened emotion—is readily apparent in My Big White Alien Boy Friend (2013) and Lady Cranbrook (2013) in particular. The crimson oval of the latter floats like a halo or apparition in the firmament, while the blond, delicately detailed contour of the former hovers like a mythical shower of gold. Perhaps an explanation for the imposing scale and vertical orientation of many of the four-folds is to evoke the literal dimensions of the trees and their stilled, capacious canopies, as well as to raise eyes and uplift the spirit.

Nor has Young abandoned the aquatic realms and reflections so prevalent in her early work, as witnessed in Heartbeat (2013), a frame-filling, icy blue, rippling surface whose quartet of quadrants yield a cross, a pair of faces (with eyes, mouth), and a stained glass, cruciform jewel within an oval surround at center. Young’s paean to water—“The ability to see energy as it blows across a body of water, reflecting reality upside-down and skewed”—attests to the centrality of this essential, life giving element. Yet, from her formative tree-hugging passion to her aesthetic practice today, towering trees reign ascendant over Young’s oeuvre: “I have found my ultimate muse—the breath-giving trees.”

Dennis Alan Nawrocki, October 2015

Copyright Essay’d 2015