20th Century Traditionalist, Arthur Smith, color, color fields, Cynthia Young, George Washington University, Helen Frankenthaler, non-objective paintings, oil paint thinned with turpentine, painted forms, PanHellenic Award, Rhode Island School of Design, touchstone gallery, Willem De Looper
As I write this essay, I’ve got one eye on the keyboard and the other on the sunset. Glowing peach and gray clouds streak across an aqua sky. It’s the kind of color phenomenon that penetrates Cynthia Young’s eye and then transfers to canvas when she starts a painting. She begins by positioning her canvases on the floor, then pouring oil paint thinned with turpentine on to them. She watches the colors percolate and swirl around each other forming shapes. After the paint dries, the canvas goes up on the wall where she paints with a brush to finish up the composition. While observing her surroundings Cynthia learned intuitively to “see forms instead of objects.” She sees color patterns instead of tree canopies, and meditates on colors in the dark shapes forming storm clouds.
The circuitous journey to becoming a color field painter began in Ravenna, Ohio where she pretty much had the run of the neighborhood during childhood. Though shy, she and her best friend (who lived in the undertaker’s house) found places to let their imaginations run wild. Sometimes in the attic telling ghost stories until they scared themselves silly. Sometimes dancing among the caskets. Sometimes hiding in a club house made from a huge casket carton. Sometimes sitting quietly in a corner drawing or out of sight climbing trees.
Cynthia’s life changed at age 12 when her parents divorced and her mother remarried and moved with Cynthia and her new stepfather to Youngstown, Ohio. In this town of steel mills she enrolled in high school and, during the summer, worked for a florist picking cabbages. Cynthia left the fields after she was hired by the local radio station. Cynthia learned how to give the required weekly speech from memory in French class and how to endure the trials of belonging to a high school sorority. Receiving the PanHellenic Award for All-Around Student topped off her senior year.
Cynthia started college in her mother’s alma mater, Connecticut College for Women, in New London, Connecticut not far from the Coast Guard Academy. Her shyness gone now, she became a party girl as well as a student. “I had a good time and every year I changed my major,” she recalls. “Many courses looked interesting: history, philosophy and finally art where the teacher gave me more negative input than positive.” She spent a wonderful summer studying art at Rhode Island School of Design, a course that pointed her in the direction of art studies.
In New London, while in college, Cynthia began dating Avery Young, a Navy man from the submarine base across the river. He was one of the first to make his career in the newly-minted nuclear submarine program. Avery pursued her relentlessly for three months until she finally agreed to tie the knot. Everywhere they were stationed she studied art. After Avery retired, they moved to McLean, VA. Here she was close to the Corcoran where she took classes. She also enrolled in George Washington University eventually obtaining an MFA there while working as receptionist at the Reading Center.
The day finally came when, under the tutelage of Arthur Smith and inspired by Helen Frankenthaler and Willem De Looper, Cynthia found her voice creating non-objective paintings. She and a friend, rented a painting studio in the old Atlas Building (now the Spy Museum on 8th and F Streets, NW). The sixth floor was full of pigeons and thought to be haunted. There was only one bathroom in the whole place. “Every spring we were broken into and our radios were stolen,” Cynthia recalls, “but the thieves paid no attention to our art.” Erotic shops on the first floor, museums just around the corner, and the support of 25 other artists in the building made it a perfect place to create. Happily she painted there and taught drawing and watercolor for 15 years at Northern Virginia Community College across the Potomac River in Virginia.
Cynthia, who identifies herself a 20th Century Traditionalist, is a long time member of Touchstone Gallery where her work is displayed year round. Since her beloved husband is now gone, she spends time with her daughter living in New Jersey and two grandchildren: one who studies at the University of Vermont and the other who is a ski instructor on the verge of starting a medical career. She is still looking for a suitable painting studio. New ideas and colors just keep percolating to the surface.