Artist to Watch: Jillian Youngbird

The Emerging Kansas City Artist, Known for Her Animal-Inspired Sculptures and Environmentalist Beliefs, Racked Up the Exhibits in 2017 and Has a Busy 2018 Planned

Jillian Youngbird had a big year in 2017. Her comical sculptures of animal people, made from cardboard and covered in cut-up paint samples, were on display in Kansas City and as far away as Alaska. Youngbird’s humorous sculptures are all about environmentalism, and they attempt to make the topic approachable and interesting. Inspired by a childhood “in the Ozarks among the hillbillies” and her great-grandmother Mable, Youngbird seeks to unite her art with her Native American heritage — she is part Cherokee — and environmentalist beliefs.

Visiting Youngbird’s studio in the Town Pavilion, where she is one of 32 current Charlotte Street Foundation Studio Residents (see this issue’s Artist Pages, p. 82), the first thing you notice is an unusual sculpture of a bear. Standing more than seven feet tall, the “Toklat Bear” is covered in multicolored paint samples, with a wide variety of browns, dark greens, yellows and reds, all cut and layered like fish scales. The sculpture is friendly, yet a little strange, neither a cuddly teddy bear nor a savagely realistic beast.

Youngbird’s “Toklat Bear” was the centerpiece of her solo exhibition “The Unknown Traveler and the Toklat Bear” at the Kansas City Artists Coalition last summer. Named for the Toklat River in Alaska, the bear was inspired by Youngbird’s residency at the Denali National Park in Alaska, where she spent several weeks exploring the wilderness and hosting printmaking workshops. For the Artists Coalition exhibition, Youngbird invited friends and strangers, artists and non-artists, to submit stories, letters, photographs and other marginalia to tell the story of a traveler searching for the legendary Toklat Bear and how the bear eventually saved the explorer’s life.

The “Toklat Bear” followed Youngbird’s 2015 “A Bear in Kansas City” project for Art in The Loop, which included a performance component. The artist donned a bear mask made of found materials and photographed herself wearing it at different sites around the city. Youngbird featured one of the images on her Mobank Artboards last year, pairing it with a photograph of a public work featuring a snake sculpture she placed in Loose Park.

In addition to showing on the Artboards, Youngbird’s 2017 exhibits in Kansas City included “Raise More Corn Than Hell, Peoples Climate Movement Exhibition” at the Jupiter DIY Gallery; a photography exhibition at the Overland Park Arts Center; “Ice Cream Socialism” at the Plenum Space; and a second solo exhibition, “6 Inches of Progress” at Vulpes Bastille. Beyond KC, she took part in “Corporal Cadences” at the Living Arts of Tulsa gallery in Oklahoma and “Reclaiming Earth: Works by Women Eco Artists” at the Jewett Gallery in San Francisco.

Youngbird is gearing up for a busy 2018. She has already begun work on sculptures made from reused and sustainable materials for an exhibition titled “Bless Your Heart: Seeking Lessons, Histories & Wisdom from your Mothers, Grannies & Beyond,” funded by an Inspiration Grant from ArtsKC. The exhibit is inspired by her great-grandmother, who taught Youngbird much of what she knows about craft and environmental responsibility. The artist is still working out the exhibit’s details and location.

When Youngbird isn’t working in her studio or soaking up nature, she works as community outreach and media coordinator for Imagine That! Art Studio, an art studio for the developmentally disabled. Having worked there for more than five years, Youngbird says the experience has given her permission to “just create, just have fun” and spend less time worrying about critical appraisals.

It’s exactly this freedom and playfulness that make Youngbird’s creatures so appealing. It’s no secret, environmentalism can be a drag — not everyone has the patience to listen to activists reciting statistics on glacial melting or extinction rates. Youngbird’s key approach is anthropomorphism, depicting animals as people, making us relate to these creatures as we relate to each other. Youngbird’s work might not offer specific solutions to looming environmental threats, but it could go a long way to engendering new sympathies and new outlooks on the natural world.

Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun is a writer and artist living in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a 2010 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and was a resident artist with the Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project in 2011 and 2012. He has written for publications including the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and other local arts journals.

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