Jay Youngdahl on Life’s Big Questions and What Called Him to Art
When I connect with the artist Jay Youngdahl over the phone he is in the Chilean fjords with a spotty internet connection and has one hour to spare. I had prepared questions relating to the natural environment, but, instead, our conversation starts with Youngdahl telling me about some of the people he has met on his trip and how they live, portray, and engage with the environment. “Yesterday I spent time with one of the last people who speak Kaweskar.,“ he says. The Kaweskar people are a nomadic tribe who plied the waters of Patagonia in canoes. Youngdahl, who holds a day job as a union and civil rights lawyer, feels strongly for others and is curious about them. “I am thankful to have been able to speak with them about their lives and the area,” he continues. He is on a photography trip in Patagonia led by Marc Adamus, an artist who photographs natural environments—Greenland, Bhutan, and Patagonia, among others—and then digitally retouches them. “Like most great photographers, he is a master of light,” Youngdahl tells me, showing great respect for his guide and his practice.
“I like to work with common folks as well as enjoying trying to understand the most complicated and interesting ideas,” Youngdahl tells me. He is both analytical and adventurous—an inquisitive man that is close to the people. This proximity comes from actively working with the most exploited and oppressed people in the American South and Southwest since he was a teenager. As a lawyer, he represents union workers across the country who face unjust treatment from their employers. In his free time, he writes, studies, and has an artistic practice. Every ten years or so he embarks on a new project and in conversation it is clear that his approach to life and art is open-ended and penetrative. A few years back he penned a book about the history and existential practices of the Navajo Railroad workers who he represented as a lawyer. In his fifties, he decided to go to Harvard Divinity School. “I wanted to investigate life’s big questions, such as: Why are we here?” Following his graduation he became a Fellow in two separate Harvard departments. In the late 2010s, wanting to consider ways to exhibit thoughts visually, he attended an MFA program at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago.
About his entrance into art, he simply says: “I have always liked art.” In his earlier series, he was occupied with transforming the ideas he worked on in writing into art. Creating art requires technical skills, but skill that—as he points out in the photographic narrative and zine project “1901 Susan Drive” and “5500 Spencer Drive”—is not only garnered from art school. In this photography project he celebrates beauty made by the common worker. He visited multiple construction training centers in Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and New York City and photographed the tools and objects made Inspired by the first couple years of the Russian Revolution when the artistic community was sent into the factory as resident artists he ideated the series. “Many of these utilitarian objects are made with artistic intention and I want to push the viewer to see art as something that is integral rather than separate,” he says about the project. He purposely made the photos void of people, so the preconceptions we all fall into when we see individuals do not distract from the focus.
Youngdahl calls himself a Participatory Action Artist. Meaning that his work is centered around participation and action in his life. But, do not mistake his work for general deptions of politics. “Political art today is nice and often beautiful, but often unconnected with the real struggles of many people,” he says. “Bringing attention problems is not the primary issue. What are we going to do about the problems, is.” “There are times that art can engender and define political activity for justice, like in the civil rights movement—the Black Panther party specifically— and many iterations of the feminist art movement. But just making art that has a political position, without an organic connection to actual movement, is overrated. One great example of what I mean can be found in the artistic works of the Starbucks baristas who are battling for justice on the job. Their art is connected and powerful.”
In addition, he believes that the formal views of art schools today is misleading. “Students are led to believe that they can find work after graduation when they generally cannot,” he says. He finds it sad that students leave art school with gigantic debt. “In actuality, artists are often a cog in the capitalist wheel today, having to spend most of their time as “entrepreneurs” for their work. This mindset is often antithetical to artistic practice,” he continues, “Art schools could do much more to underwrite tuition for poor students.” As I listen to his critique I wonder if this accomplished lawyer might bring the knowledge organizing to alter systems to meet the needs of workers and users—the ability to enact change—into the art world.
Of course, this critique of art schools in conjunction with poor employment terms in the cultural sector is not unique—it is widely known that workers in the cultural sector are overworked, underpaid, and both financial and sexual abuse is prevalent in the workplace, and to top it off artists are often in more difficult situations. They work on the margins; if they do not have access to state-subsidized healthcare, their benefits are accessed in roundabout manners through difficult-to-land employers such as universities, spouses, or from employment that may be related but do not align with their art practice. Despite this, art schools, art history, and other related programs have grown in number and have higher attendance rates than ever before. I ask Youngdahl why the cultural sector is still so attractive. He responds: “Because our artistic generation has been sold a bill of goods—it is enough to be close to the art and the rich people on their terms. We have been led to believe that simply by existing in their culture we are doing good.”
Youngdahl writes on workers’ rights and related topics—namely in “Raising the Bar” a column in East Bay Express—which he had ownership in—, but also in New Labor Forum, In These Times, and other left-leaning outlets. “Trends in unionization come from raw economic needs,” he says when I ask him to comment on the many museum workers who are unionizing across the country to better their employment terms.
Youngdahl’s trip to Patagonia comes on the heels of a research and photography project “The Mangroves of Masters Bayou: Towards a Philosophy of a Natural Spot” currently on view at the Ringling College of Art and Design’s Alfred R. Goldstein Library. The work centers his new back yard—Master’s Bayou—a natural preserve of mangroves, a wetland eco-system in Tampa Bay. “Increasingly, I am interested in the relationship between beauty and justice,” he says. He is inspired by Aimé Césaire who participated in anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean and wrote much on this relationship. Though Youngdahl adds “but he wrote in French so I miss much of his poetics.” We both chuckle. To penetrate the social and physical depths of the Bayou he asked himself – from a view influenced by a Marxian view of dialectics —“How should I look at a place to understand its beauty?” He considered previous ownership, pottery shards found at the archeological site—”designs that show an unbroken artistic lineage of 1500-2000 years”—as well as plant life. Centering the bayou he explored methods of investigation and thinking—on-site visits where he photographed nature were followed by focused off-site research that involved visits to archives, reading scientific research, and meeting with researchers, debunking his own misconceptions to understand the area and its history better.
“There is a beauty to justice and there is a justice to beauty,” Youngdahl says, and this sentence lingers in my mind.
Youngdahl is extremely articulate and his sentences are dense, yet he has a direct and simple manner in which he speaks. It is clear and kind. “In the early stages of unionization in the United States—for example in the garment strikes in the Northeast—women from Poland and Czechoslovakia who at first were separated eventually got together because their bosses and employers did not respect either of the groups,” he says. It might sound corny but we are stronger together and unions unite. Youngdahl senses that there is a return of communal feeling with the rise in identity politics; people respect each other’s languages, colors, and sexualities, and can all work together.
At the School of the Art Institute Chicago, he made friends with fellow MFA student Lesley Bodzy who he exhibited with at Emerge Gallery in 2021. They have a shared history of bettering situations for workers. Albeit, in the private sector, Bodzy established a temp agency for lawyers beginning in the 1980s which allowed women to maintain their legal careers while rearing families. The middle class has grown and more women are working. Youngdahl points out the effects on economic globalization: ”We will see the wealthy likely not being able to make as much money in the current crisis environment. When will this reflect in the high-level art market?” he wonders. I point to the drop in cryptocurrency value and decreased buying power from its collector pool. “We need a Hunter Thompson to write a piece about NFT’S, they are so goofy,” he jokingly responds. The Russian oligarchs are no longer buying we both remark. “A high-level art is kind of like a yacht,” he continues.
Most importantly, he reiterates, is his call to create art that reflects himself and the regular folks around him; “art-making at the bottom is a beautiful and wonderful thing.” Mid-sentence, his voice trails off and he has to leave to help the boat crew—his new project, research on the South American landscape calls.
Jay Youngdahl’s The Mangroves of Masters Bayou: Towards a Philosophy of a Natural Spot is on view at the Ringling College of Art and Design’s Alfred R. Goldstein Library through May 15, 2023.
Fabulous interview with noted labor organizer/attorney and artist Jay Youngdahl!