Creative people may have an advantage when it comes to processing grief. Writers can craft a poem or story, musicians can compose a song and multimedia artists like Amber Jean Young can tap into a wellspring of resources to deal with loss. When her mother, writer and musician Pegi Young, died of ovarian cancer in 2019, it seemed only natural that Young would turn to her first love, painting, in order to create a tribute. The resulting art works became an exhibition entitled Pegi’s Garden, on view through April 30 at Bryant Street Gallery.
Young speaks with fondness about her childhood growing up in Broken Arrow Ranch, near Kings Mountain. Being surrounded by nature, with lots of trees and open sky, was definitely an inspiration for her as a child. But she was also impacted by the many patterns that existed within the home. “My mother was an avid collector of textiles, including Navajo weaving, baskets, Persian rugs and lace,” said Young. She laughed as she recounted numerous times when walking down a street in Europe often included “a sharp right into a lace shop.”
Young said that her destiny to be an artist was locked in pretty early. “I took art classes in preschool and that started me on a path that I never diverged from.” She attended elementary and middle school in Portola Valley and went on to high school in San Francisco. Following high school, she applied to a number of small, liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and chose to attend Kenyon College in Ohio. When asked why, as a California native who had enjoyed an idyllic childhood on an expansive ranch, she picked Ohio, she admitted, “Every February I asked myself the same question!”
She returned to the Bay Area and earned a graduate degree at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she focused mainly on painting. Young is quick to credit her parents, Pegi and renowned musician Neil Young, for recognizing and supporting her predilection for the arts. “Not a lot of people get the level of encouragement I received — and the early identity as an artist. This is who I am, this is what I do,” she said.
A residency at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program in Woodside (“just the other side of the mountain from home”) was a turning point in her development. “That time was really important for me because I went on to create a series of quilts there that were all about place.”
For a number of years, Young worked in mixed media, fiber art and quilts. In fact, Bryant Street Gallery owner Karen Imperial visited Young’s Berkeley studio with the intention of seeing her textile work. She recalled, “I walked into the studio and there were very few textiles but there were these paintings. She told me who her mother was and that she had died of ovarian cancer and this was the way she processed her grief. I loved the idea of showing these works and decided we were going to give a substantial amount of the proceeds to ovarian cancer research.”
Young said that after her mother’s death, she needed to “reframe.” “I could not do the same work as before. It was not the same world,” she said.
The paintings do, however, reflect the influence of all the years of working in textiles. They begin with the idea of a pattern, said the artist, and then are worked upon in layers. The exuberant, boldly colorful still lifes are executed in acrylic and are inspired not by an outdoor garden but by the many houseplants her mother tended. In fact, one of the smaller paintings is titled “She must have had 40 houseplants.” She recalled a plethora of vines and rhododendrons in the house and a deck filled with flowering plants and succulents. “It really was a beautiful place,” she said.
Young talked about how, early on, her work was influenced by the pattern and decoration movement of the 1970s. “I don’t have any one artist who drew me in, it is more about the whole philosophy of the movement — the visuals of it and the reaction to the very masculine art of the time.”
“My art has a very feminine undertone, especially this body of work,” she said.
The bright, almost day-glo colors in these floral paintings were specifically inspired by her mother’s last years. “She lived a lot of her life wearing black because it was dramatic. But then she switched gears and started wearing big patterns and bright colors. That shift in the last part of her life made her feel really good.”
Creating these paintings obviously had the same effect on Young. “These colors helped me move through the grief of her passing. It shored me up and tricked my brain into feeling good.”
Imperial said that visitors to the show have had a similar reaction. “Responses to the work have been amazing. We have sold many and people are just delighted to see them. Pegi Young was extremely loved by the community and known for her work for disabled children.”
Pegi was a co-founder of The Bridge School in Hillsborough to serve children with severe physical disabilities and communication needs. The Youngs' son, Ben, and Zeke, Neil's son from a previous marriage to actress Carrie Snodgress, both have cerebral palsy. Pegi and Neil, who divorced in 2014, also co-founded the Bridge School Benefit Concerts, which helped raise funds for the school from 1986 to 2016.
Young said her next body of work will again reflect her love of textiles. “I am going to continue to build compositions around patterns, with the theme of the mother/child relationship.”
And what would her mother say about this exhibition? “I hope she would be very pleased with the show — I know she would be,” Young said with a smile,“ She loved bright colors.”
"Pegi's Garden" is on view through April 30. Bryant Street Gallery is located at 532 Bryant St., Palo Alto. For more information, visit bryantstreet.com.