Ursula X. Young is Uplifting Other Women Artists in the Bay Area and Beyond
Historically, the art industry has valued the work of women artists less than that of male artists, despite being the subject matter of most work. Today, women artists are working to lift each other up. In an effort to inspire younger aspiring artists during Women’s History Month, I wanted to learn more about women who inspire me within our vibrant Bay Area artist community. I interviewed Ursula X. Young to learn more about her, explore what keeps her motivated, and what is the story behind her female-focused work.
I first was drawn to Young’s work in The Haight. I’d see her work on murals here and there throughout San Francisco and it always caught my attention. Last summer, I was able to show my own work next to hers in a women-only show at the Luna Rienne Gallery in San Francisco. It was for an art exhibit called “How To Know You Are A Fairy” which showcased fairy-like beings throughout the show. I was honored to be part of this amazing group of women artists. I vowed at the time to get to know each of the artists better and learn more about their work.
Young’s work is shown all over the place and helped her build strong connections with other female muralists all over the world. You can especially see her work sprinkled across San Francisco as she has been in the Bay Area since the mid ‘90s. That being said, she’s been an artist her whole life. She noted that she would do restaurant chalkboards or posters for her Dad’s university lectures but that her first commission came after her first solo show at Edo Salon in the late ‘90s. “I was able to go to an art-focused high school, and then went on to graduate from Parsons School of Design in NYC, but my first solo show was in San Francisco in 1998,” says Young. Early in her career, she would take work wherever she could find it.
While you’ll see Young’s work all over San Francisco, she no longer lives in The City. She lived here for over a decade before she was priced out like many women artists. Now, she travels back and forth to commissions from her yurt studio in Grass Valley.
“Yes, it’s been 15 years (since she lived in SF)! It’s crazy because I still feel so connected to San Francisco, and most of my work is still based in The Bay. My studio is in a yurt in the woods near Grass Valley, and I love it here. My husband and I left mainly because we got priced out of SF, got evicted from our rent-controlled Lower Haight apartment, and realized we couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore…don’t think I am the only artist that happened to! But the timing was right because also we were getting drawn to living in nature, we really wanted more space, to be surrounded by trees and grow our own food, and be close to rivers and lakes in the summer. It turned out to be a magical place to raise a kid, within a great community of lots of creative people and it’s still pretty easy to drive to SF when we need a bit of city life.”
Find your own voice and keep practicing it.
The work that Young makes is bold and colorful with a sweetness about it. You can see Grass Valley’s woodsy influence in her work these days. Flowers, bees, and big doe-eyed women gaze at you with their hair blowing in the wind. Elements of San Francisco are still painted as symbols in much of her public art. My favorite part of her work is when I see the rainbow skin of her characters. To me, this allows the women to be more muse-like – more mystical and without a specific ethnic background which makes them more universally relatable. “It’s something I started doing very subconsciously, it’s my meditation, but also I love that it means that it gives a vibrancy to the women I paint, and allows all different women to connect to my works. I guess it’s sort of the magic of the women shining from within,” says Young.
Young has been depicting women in her work most of her life and inspired by the female form since a young age. “I used to be especially drawn to the fairytale illustrations of the books I loved – with illustrations by Arthur Rackham and other Victorian fairytale illustrations – but I also think that the inspiration comes from going to museums and galleries as a child with my Dad, and I would always be drawn to the paintings of women through different time periods. I remember going to Vienna and discovering Klimt when I was young, but also the Pre Raphaelites whose work is on display at the museums near where I grew up in the North of England so I got to see those paintings a lot. I guess I am just drawn to the power and strength and beauty of femininity, but I hope I make work that all kinds of people can connect to as well – not just women – and if not in my female characters, then in my cityscapes and nature scenes,” says Young.
Today, Young is inspired by all the women she’s met and have met in the past, imagined and real.
As a female artist myself, I find it’s easy to be inspired by men as they over-saturate the work you see in galleries and depicted in art history books. But when you find a female artist you are inspired by – it feels even more special.
While inspired by many women herself, Young’s work itself isn’t inspired by just one person. “They aren’t one person, or anyone specific (usually) but my hope is that they take on the spirit of strength, power, and beauty of all women, and I always love when someone finds themselves in one of my works – like it was waiting for them. But also, I am inspired by my mother – it wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized that some of my women look like her when she was younger, it was never intentional, but she is someone I am hugely inspired by so it makes sense. She has done so much work with women’s movements since before I was born, when it was a very different struggle,” says Young.
Young is known for uplifting and supporting women artists all around her through her art and through her collaborations with other women.
More recently, Young’s latest mural was co-created with Amanda Lynn in The Haight for a women-owned business. “Such a beautiful week creating this piece with the talented, kind, caring, dedicated and hardworking woman @ursulaxyoung 💖 This was our first time collaborating and was so natural and fun, can’t wait to do it again,” says Lynn on her Instagram.
“We titled the mural ‘Wild Feathers and Painted Ladies’ and it’s really an ode to Lower Haight and to the business it is on. The shop that is there, Wild Feather, is a woman-owned and operated business with the most fabulous and fun festive attire… clothes that make you smile. To me, it captures the true energy of San Francisco. We wanted this mural to be a reflection of all that, with bright colors and oversized flowers and feathers against a silhouetted cityscape. But we also wanted to have it be a love letter to our old neighborhood, and there are symbols and messages within it too. Since I really got my start in that 2 block radius, I wanted to pour all that love onto that wall and have it feel like the experience I had down there in the ‘90s. But also I guess we just wanted to put something bright and beautiful and positive onto the streets at a time when it seems we all really need it,” says Young.
I have connected with a lot more women artists over the years – who are super supportive, so there is a strength in that.
Women have to work harder to get the recognition they deserve – even within The Bay Area. They often have to prove themselves time and time again in order to be truly seen by gallery owners. Young has found a kind of sisterhood within her community of fellow muralists and made connections with female gallery owners who see the talent in her work.
“There were certain galleries or art spaces that seemed to be men’s clubs, run by men and mostly showing men. There didn’t feel like a way in. It felt intimidating to even approach those spaces sometimes, but that could partly be from my own insecurities as well – maybe men are better at being able to push themselves into the spotlight. But these days I don’t find it so much of an issue – maybe having more confidence in my work has made me not notice, but also I have connected with a lot more women artists over the years – who are super supportive, so there is a strength in that,” says Young.
“Plus, I think things have changed since then, and on top of that, there are so many amazing women-run galleries in San Francisco, some of whom I have been working with for many years now. I gotta say that Olivia Ongpin from Luna Rienne Gallery has been a huge supporter of my work, and has helped me get to where I am today – she’s been a major part of the SF creative world for many years,” says Young.
Having met Olivia of Luna Rienne Gallery myself, I can attest that she is a huge supporter. She routinely supports other women with regular women-only shows and goes out of her way to show her love for the artists she has within her gallery.
And while Young gives Ongpin huge kudos for being an inspiration within the art community of San Francisco (rightfully so), Young herself has been co-leading a group of women called Few and Far Women who support each other within the international muralist community.
“We are just starting to plan our 11 year anniversary event at the Napa Ruins in mid-October. I am one of the co-directors of this all-women International crew of muralists, street artists, graffiti artists and skaters. There are currently 23 members (including members from Japan, Indonesia, France, and Colombia) and we get together and paint all over the world, we just recently got non-profit status, too. Within our crew, we also do a lot of community-based work, activism, mural events, and workshops. It’s really amazing being a part of this group of women, we all learn so much from one another and have so much fun when we get to collaborate on big projects like this one in the video (the mural is still up, it’s off Mandela Parkway in Oakland),” says Young.
To wrap up my interview, I asked Young a couple of questions to inspire other women artists looking to get their start:
Q: For other women artists looking to be as prolific as yourself with their own art, what advice do you have for them?
“Just keep working, paint or draw or do something creative every day. But also, find your own voice and keep practicing it. I think it’s easy to get distracted by what’s cool or trending or what other people are doing, but just stay true to yourself and find what you love to do,” tells Young.
Q: I see you have a daughter: what would you want to say to her mother-to-daughter – woman-to-woman about following her dreams as you did with your own art?
Young encourages us all by saying, “Find your passion, the thing that you love doing the most, and then just keep on doing it, keep practicing and get better. Also, not everyone is going to make that process easy, there will be setbacks and stumbling blocks along the way, and that’s ok. Don’t get discouraged, make sure what you’re doing makes you happy – and know that you can’t please everyone in the process – but if you can get to the point where people get it, let that help to be an inspiration for moving forward.”
I want to personally thank Ursula X. Young for taking the time to answer all of my questions. I believe it’s important for women to keep on supporting each other. Helping women to see success in hard work and determination in the art industry.
You can find more about Ursula here: