Sunday, July 17, 2005


Debbie Young is the newest artist to join The Gallery at Ward Centre, a cooperative gallery, where her paintings now hang on the walls.

Giving voice
to her muse

Debbie Young was born into an
artful world, and as an adult
grows into her rightful place

FOR Debbie Young, art-making is as natural as breathing. Her earliest recollections are of accompanying her grandmother Ella Wong to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, exploring its basements and getting her hands dirty in art, "probably making a mess," she said.

Her arts education continued through college at the San Francisco Art Institute, but when it came time to get serious about work, she settled into the Queen's Medical Center Emergency Room, working in admissions, about as far from art-making as one can get.

Nearly 25 years later, she's finally made it back to art, and recently was invited to join the Gallery at Ward Centre, a cooperative gallery, where a show of her "Recent Paintings and Works on Paper" is on view through July 28, along with "Recent Works -- Vessels in Koa and Other Woods," by Michael Lee.

Young will also be among the artists featured at the Academy of Arts' "Showcase 2005," events taking place Aug. 13 and 14.

One might ask, what took her so long? But sometimes the strength of family, even in the abstract, can bridge time and distance.

YOUNG would be the first to admit hers was not a traditional childhood. The academy was her "second home," where her mother, Lithiea Hall, worked as secretary to several directors from 1949 to 2002. Young's real home, too, was alive with family friends like the renowned artists Isami Doi, Madge Tennent and Keichi Kimura, and filled with art and antiques collected by her artist father, John Young, on his many travels around the world.

"As a baby I learned not to lean on or touch or break these things -- 3,000- to 4,000-year-old Han dynasty, pre-Colombian and Cambodian artifacts," she said. "I understood they were valuable because people from another culture made them and their culture valued them.

"My parents led a really colorful life, and art was always a given. They really gave me an appreciation for collecting art and being among all kinds of different people.

"Seeing these things gave me a lot of clarity and perspective that maybe other people don't see."

The social whirl that surrounded her parents and their connection through the arts cushioned the effect of her parents' divorce when she was 5. Although she lived with her mother, she still had access to her father's world, and while she enjoyed taking art classes herself, she never once thought that she might one day follow in her father's footsteps.

"I went to art school but I didn't want to teach. I didn't know what I would do when I finished."

Returning to Hawaii from San Francisco, she settled into her job at Queen's, working a 3-to-11:30 p.m. shift that was not conducive to artistic pursuits.

"The emergency room is a very colorful place because people from all walks of life are coming through the door, and I was on the front lines, watching trauma going on, seeing babies born in the back seats of cars in the parking lot, dealing with events that are very human, dealing with life and death.

"It was very exhaustive, and I'd have to jump in the ocean later to re-energize."

Debbie Young only recently adopted her father John Young's passion for sketching. Now her notebook accompanies her everywhere, including leisurely moments at the Musician's Association of Hawaii, where live jazz nights provide the opportunity to capture a mood in a heartbeat, as in this quick sketch, one of several dozen made in a session.

A TURNING POINT came in 2001, when on a lark she became the last person to sign up for Noreen Naughton's "Drawing in Italy" art tour.

For Young it was like being reborn.

"It was a pivotal moment for me. We were walking through galleries and sketching like crazy during a month-long tour from Rome to Milan, visiting 50 museums and churches.

"It was very intense, very informative, a fabulous experience. I hadn't done any art since school, but from there I said, 'Let's go!'

"It was so wonderful to travel and devote all our time to art, talking about art, drawing and painting, eating and drinking wine in an interesting environment, a rich cultural environment. What a life is that?"

She found herself adopting her father's methodology of committing moments, experiences and moods to her sketchbook.

"What I learned from him wasn't hands-on. He was not one to guide my hand in drawing or painting, but I learned from my father in a vicarious way, watching him interact with paper and canvases. He didn't need to carry a camera or sketchbook. He would work from memory and recollection.

"He could not keep his hands still. He could not help himself. He was always drawing, whether it was a wall with lipstick or on napkins at a restaurant. Maple Garden is full of his artwork. Instead of a tip, John would leave a napkin with a drawing.

"I don't quite have that sense of confidence.

"His eye was so tactile, and it was one of the gifts I learned from him. It was something there all along."

Her sketchbook was invaluable on her journey.

"You see so much, you don't remember it all. When you draw, it heightens your power of observation, and that's how you develop as an artist. When you draw something, you pick up so much information, you've got it forever."

She also learned that art has the power to connect people who don't speak the same language.

"The nature of art is universal. No matter where you are, it has the same power. With a sketchbook, you can communicate by that process."

Young returned to Italy the next three summers, and quit her job to pursue art-making full time. She is now trying to persuade Naughton to offer another tour of Italy in 2007.

Even when not traveling, she carries a small sketchbook to capture anything that intriques her. She enjoys drawing musicians while listening to live jazz, her quick sketches inspired by the rhythms and sounds or the pure visual theater.

Debbie Young's mixed-media monotype "Echotewa" is on display in her inaugural show at The Gallery at Ward Centre, where five of her pieces sold on opening night last Saturday.

WHAT LIES AHEAD is a more difficult task, establishing an identity separate from her father's.

It's a rare but happy occasion when a child chooses to follow a parent into a family business, carrying on a legacy that in Hawaii has been rooted in restaurant, florist, convenience store, and construction and hardware companies dating three or four generations back.

By nature, family businesses often present a picture of unity, with strengths of grandparents, parents and siblings meshing for the common good.

It works when all understand that the family unit matters more than the individual.

When it comes to the arts, it's another story because making one's mark requires a burst of individuality, a task made more difficult for sons and daughters of the famous, who are often viewed as extensions of their parents. Many schoolchildren experience a milder form of the phenomenon when "sister of" or "brother of" is tacked on to their identities when following in the wake of an older sibling's accomplishments.

John Young was a colorful figure when he was alive, and his contributions to Hawaii's artistic landscape were formidable.

He was a self-taught artist, born in 1909, who incorporated the bold brush strokes of calligraphy, learned in Chinese language school, in his work. His drawings and paintings continue to grace island homes and institutions, and his legacy lives on through several local galleries bearing his name. Chief among them are the John Young Gallery of Southeast Asian Art created at the Academy of Arts through his gifts, the John Young Museum in Krauss Hall on the University of Hawaii campus, and works on view at the Wo Building on the Punahou School campus. The John Young Foundation -- of which his daughter serves as one of three trustees -- also funds and promotes arts education and exhibitions throughout the community.

While Debbie has been able to share her development as an artist and her role as a co-owner of the Gallery at Ward Centre with her mother, her father died in 1997. She says, "I think he would be proud to see me doing this now."

But it's not because she is following in his footsteps or even that she chose an artist's life, but that she's finally being true to herself and giving voice to her muse.

"My parents never made any expectation of me. I was an only child, and they never told me not to do this or that."

"I've pretty much always been a solo papaya anyway. I'm happy I chose the art, because its a way of expressing myself and being true to who I am."

Debbie with her parents, John Young and Lithiea Hall, at the opening of the John Young Gallery of Southeast Asian Art at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

DEBBIE YOUNG'S work is sensual and eco-conscious, whether capturing her impressions of the red earth and pueblos of the Southwest in "Echotewa," the joyous experience of "Day Break" or the voluptuousness of the female form in "Virgin Vessels" -- yin to her father's yang.

Chuck Davis, a fellow co-op member and drawing instructor, said of Debbie Young's work, "She has not followed the style of her father. She has her own voice. She's progressed so quickly, and it comes from her background, but it's not a replication of her father's voice."

In turn, Young credits Davis as one of her teachers, along with one of her early teachers at the Academy of Arts, Joseph Feher, and George Woollard, with whom she's recently studied monotype, printmaking and painting, and whose encouragement led her to plunge back into the world of art.

She also has a supportive second family at the Gallery at Ward Centre, where each of the 14 artists involved is a cheerleader and an equal contributor to its success.

"The co-op concept is what makes it work," said Davis. "We divide up all the jobs and tasks that need to be done, whether it's bookkeeping, being the janitor or hanging art, and it functions very well. Each of us has a sense of ownership."

WHILE YOUNG IS currently living an artful life, she's learned it's really something she's known how to do all along.

It doesn't necessarily involve daily art-making, she said, but being conscious and appreciative of what's around you -- "driving down the street and noticing the light that's unique to Hawaii.

"I start my day in my yard, and that keeps some order in my life. One of my friends' father just passed on, and that was something he always said: 'Keep your garden in order, and that way you know your life is in order.' It's a reflection of yourself.

"To live an artful life is to find yourself looking for good things. You're drawn to it and people are drawn to you.

"It's having a real zest for life that goes onto the paper or canvas. It's living life to its fullest."

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