By Jordan Schmitt, Head of PR
Whether driving through the concrete jungle of New York City or the streets of Pittsburgh’s cultural district, a passerby glancing out the window is likely to see a painting or mural by artist Janel Young.
The road to becoming an established artist was not an easy one for Young, who spent many years fueling her passion juggling shows and exhibits while holding down a day job.
With an inclination toward art from a young age, Young attended Rogers Middle School for the Creative and Performing Arts, before going to Schenley High School. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Pennsylvania State University, Young accepted a job with a digital marketing firm, Ruder Finn, in New York City.
It was then that Young moved to New York. She joined Ruder Finn as a digital content and social media strategist. Leading many graphic designers, web developers, videographers, animators and overall creative people, Young decided to tap into her own artistic ability outside of work.
“It made me miss being on the other side as the creative person,” Young says.
Portfolio in hand, Young started going straight from work to art exhibits and even entered pieces of her own. She was working full-time during the day but doing what she loved in the evening, and her day job coworkers often came to support her.
It was an opportunity to show her art in Sydney, Australia, that showed Young the open doors that art could lead to. She applied on a whim and was notified of her acceptance two months later. Knowing she could not turn down such an opportunity, Young promptly told her job that she would need time off.
The show was amazing, I met fashion designers, photographers and artists. It was a crazy experience,” she says. “That’s when it clicked for me that I should really take this a little more seriously.”
Continued exhibits in New York led Young to receive larger commissioned projects. After nearly five years at the firm, she decided to leave permanently and focus on art full-time. She started volunteering with the New York City Mural Arts Project, a well-known organization that collaborates with the community to produce murals. After a good bit of volunteering, Young was hired as a team artist.
“I was working on really big projects, like one- to two-thousand-square-foot murals in the city. I now probably have around seven murals in New York,” she says.
Through having the ability to bring her art to a physical canvas, Young used her creativity to illustrate positivity. Public art, such as murals, allows artists to influence everyday passersby.
“For me, the challenge is what do I want them to feel or see or take away from the space that they are in,” Young says.
Young put on her first solo show in her hometown in 2018, and a year later she officially moved back home. It was in Pittsburgh that the journey of making art a profession came full circle for her.
One of Young’s most renowned pieces that she featured in her show was “The Difference Between You and Me.” Young describes it as her most political piece. On one side is a white body with a Captain America shield on the chest, and the mirroring body is a brown body with a target and a bullet hole. Intended to illustrate a statement on police brutality, the work went viral on multiple social media platforms. As a Black woman, tackling heavy subjects is a crucial part of the healing process for Young.
“To me, part of creating that type of art is about the healing process. You can’t really start the healing process until you confront the thing that is making you angry or sad. This is the first step: you have to get it out,” says Young.
Activism is an important aspect of Young’s art. Another digital piece, “Avalanche,” was created to address the impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities. The piece addresses social issues and environmental disadvantages such as local air and water quality in Pittsburgh’s poorer areas. According to Young’s portfolio, “Avalanche” was awarded with a public wall scape display in Pittsburgh from the New Sun Rising and RiverWise grant cohort.
“As an artist or creative person in general, our job is to use the talent that we have to tell beautiful stories and tell them accurately. The part that is usually missing is the accuracy,” says Young, “When it comes to activism, that is the piece that feels very important. Making sure that the story is told from the point of view that is often ignored.”
For Young, celebrating joy is just as important. The artist is intentional about the messages that she wants her work to portray. She has created many works to affirm young members of Black and brown communities. For example, Young designed a 42-page coloring book titled “Color Your Crown” as a way for young Black girls to embrace their natural hair. The book was a part of her Black Girl Magic series, which includes 26 portraits.
“My main motto is to ‘inspire through creativity and play,’” Young explains. “I want kids who wouldn’t normally be exposed to the arts in the same sort of way to see themselves and feel like they are being reflected and represented. I am very intentional about making Black and brown kids feel very important through my work.”
Most recently, Young has gained recognition from a partnership with Yahoo to redesign its logo for Black History Month. According to her portfolio, Young is the first artist the company has partnered with in such a way. The project gained widespread media attention and outreach.
In anticipation to the start of the commission, Yahoo’s creative director advised Young to “put as much as yourself into the design as possible.” As a result, Young created a logo that reflects herself as well as the community she aims to represent.
“It gave me validation as an artist that my work is valuable and to make things that I love,” she says. “I think it gave me more momentum. It made me realize that this is not asking for too much.”