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Artist Ronald Young Makes Sculpture Out Of Debris To Express St. Louis Resilience

Ronald Young
Ronald Young's work incorporates materials he spots in the street, including bricks, chains and bits of rope. Photographs of crumbling buildings root the work in St. Louis.

Ronald Young discovered a new artistic language while driving around the Ville, Old North and other north St. Louis neighborhoods.

A painter and collage artist, he wanted to break from his old work and create something new. Then he started feeling the urge to pick up bits and pieces of debris from the side of the road. Bricks from crumbling buildings. Pieces of charred wood. Old, rusty tools.

Young fashioned them into abstract sculptures that bear a deep sense of history and suggest the resilience of a community that has seen decades of redlining and disinvestment.

His exhibition “The Prevalence of Ritual” at the Gallery at the Kranzberg includes many such sculptures, surrounded by large-format photos of doorways in abandoned brick buildings. The work is informed by the Ghanian concept of sankofa — recovering old traditions — and the idea of power objects, that inanimate objects possess a soul.

“People will think that I’m projecting my own beliefs onto these objects. There’s more to it than that. These objects have a life, they really do,” Young said. “We all have relatives who have objects that we keep and cherish for years and years. That object comes to represent that person, and it represents an idea.”

Young taught art for 33 years to elementary and middle school students in St. Louis and Kirkwood before taking early retirement to pursue his own art full time.

His exhibition is on view by appointment through Sept. 4.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Young about how he developed his sculptural technique and what his work says about the hidden history and endurance of St. Louis’ historically Black neighborhoods.

Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Ronald Young sits for a portrait in the St. Louis Public Radio studios. His show is on view at the Gallery at the Kranzberg through Sept. 4.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: You used to focus on paintings and collage. How did you develop the style we see in this show at the Kranzberg?

Ronald Young: My first year at graduate school at Washington University, I was stumbling through the dark. I didn’t want to paint anymore. I didn’t want to work with anything familiar. I wanted to have a totally new environment, a totally new language, a totally new way of working.

I just started collecting stuff. Without even knowing where I was going with it. I just started collecting materials.

Goodwin: Materials like what?

Young: Bricks, burned wood, tools, rusty items. It’s almost like they called me. I would ride down the street and I would see something, slam on the breaks, jump out, throw it in the back of my truck. I didn’t even know what I was going to do with it.

Eventually what I began to understand is that these objects had a voice. I gave them a voice, but they resonated with me. I started looking back in history and understanding the whole concept of power objects.

 Ronald Young's work is informed by African traditions that place importance on remembering the past. [7/21/21]
Ronald Young
Ronald Young's work is informed by African traditions that place importance on remembering the past.

Goodwin: What’s a power object?

Young: The concept of power objects comes from the African diaspora belief that all objects in nature have a soul. And what I began to understand is that, because these objects were touched by humans, they have a life. They’ve lived a life. You can actually look at the object and you see the rust and you see the use of it.

I used them to just make a statement about the strength and the resiliency of the community.

Goodwin: Your exhibition at the Kranzberg, “The Prevalence of Ritual,” has a lot of charred wood, rusted pieces of metal, nails, twisted rope, photographs of doorways in brick buildings that are in disrepair.

Being in the presence of this, there's a feeling of history, of maybe continuity with the ancestors.

Young: Yeah. For me, the history is I ride down these streets on the north side. As I ride through this area I ride through the Ville, I ride through Old North, and I remember what the neighborhood used to look like. And what it looks like now. And I needed to make people see what I saw. It’s all this history that’s there, that we just kind of don’t pay attention to or don’t alue. I think that people need to really take another look.

Goodwin: You’ve said that the materials you use are the products of a city that treats neighborhoods and people as disposable. What do you mean by that?

Young: It’s no big secret, the neglect that has existed in north St. Louis. At some point in the ‘80s is when the mass of middle-class Blacks began to move from north city and move into North St. Louis County or move away, and the neglect of the area was escalated.

Then you had the brick thieves that came in. Developers were buying repurposed bricks. And so people in the community — usually guys from the community — would go and take the bricks from the buildings. One of the techniques they would use was to set the buildings on fire. That would help loosen up the mortar, and they could take the bricks easier. Then people began to realize there were other materials in there they could make money off of as well.

Anything they could sell, they did. A lot of it winds up in antique shops around St. Louis. So the Black community’s been exploited, and we just ride past it and accept it. We don't even pay attention to it.

Ronald Young
Ronald Young said his work evokes a feeling of danger, which reflects the damage done to north St. Louis neighborhoods through decades of disinvestment and the neglect of abandoned buildings.

Goodwin: I want to be sure we talk about some of the thematic underpinnings in your work, in terms of traditions that you’re tapping into that go across the ocean to Africa. We talked about power objects. Tell me about sankofa.

Young: Sankofa is the African concept of understanding one’s past in order to move forward.

Goodwin: And that’s embedded at the heart of this project.

Young: That’s embedded at the heart of this. I’m more interested in things that have a character. Things that have lived. That you can actually look at them and you can see, this object has been around a while.

And if you stand before it, something in your gut is going to happen. A friend of mine says, you look at it until you see it.

Goodwin: Would you describe these sculptures as beautiful?

Young: Yup. I think they’re beautiful. I think they're beautiful. I often say that my work can be dangerous. If you stand too close to it, it’ll scratch you.

Goodwin: You mean physically dangerous.

Young: Physically, yeah.

Goodwin: Don’t lean against it.

Young: But that’s the purpose. The works are intended to evoke a feeling of, if I stand too close to that I could get hurt. And I’m like, yeah, but the hurt that the community is feeling — and I really don't want to get into the politics of it, because it takes away from the art.

I just wanted to make a statement about the community and the ability of people to literally let these areas deteriorate.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.