By Elizabeth Sturgeon
Photos by Morgan Hunt
I fill my hand with soap and swirl paint-clogged bristles under the faucet. Fingers wrinkled and stained, I stir the brushes into my palm until the colors run clear.
A good, clean paint brush requires some of the same patience that a painter employs in their craft. Maybe my process sounds obvious, but it’s a method I have followed carefully ever since Jo Anne Young taught me 15 years ago.
Wide-eyed and eager to create, I was one of the thousands of faces that sat in Ms. Young’s art room over her 40 years at Briarwood Christian School. During those years, she helped artists of all levels master the basics during art class and private lessons before school, after school and during her lunch break. She poured into all her students—from third graders through adult students—and helped them paint the things that inspired them.
A crucial part of my growth as an artist, Ms. Young’s instruction brought my artistic spark down to reality. I learned how to mix a green that was vibrant and leafy and how to cast shadows with dots of ink. There was a science to the precision in which she taught, met by the beautiful images we got to replicate and her always encouraging guidance.
That combination of detailed talent with an inspired love for storytelling is what makes Jo Anne the artist she is and gives her current work meaning—the art she now has time to create outside of the classroom since retiring in 2017. “Under the microscope, everything is methodically placed,” she says. “Realistic and abstract art can be found all around us. You’ll see that God placed abstract patterns and colors that are thoughtfully and purposefully arranged.
Jo Anne Young launched her second career right after her Mother’s Day Brunch in 2017, when her daughter, Julie, encouraged her mom to repurpose her childhood bedroom. By the next weekend, Jo Anne arranged her studio space in her beloved Cahaba Heights home, and the soft blue walls were quickly filled with her acrylic paintings, charcoal sketches, and ink drawings.
You can’t divide Jo Anne’s current portfolio from the 40 years she spent teaching though. She’s perfected her artistic eye for capturing heart and soul through art by teaching others, which has always been her dream.
Jo Anne received a Bachelor of Science in art education from the University of Montevallo before finding her longtime position at Briarwood—where her husband, Coach Jeff Young, also taught for 45 years—and then building her teaching career.
Growing up primarily in small town Evergreen, Alabama, without art classes in her schools, Jo Anne taught herself, gathering all the art books in the library to page through the work of the greats and study their techniques. Art became her lens to see beauty in the world, and she knew she wanted to give more artists the opportunity to gain this perspective.
“Art was a way to release and make sense of the world, and to be a light in the midst of it,” Jo Anne says. “Even in teaching and seeing that light bulb as students understand how to paint what they see, my purpose has been to glorify the Lord with whatever he’s put in my hands.”
Her new portfolio of work is just an extension of the purpose to which she’s always clung. Jo Anne’s art has become her medium for telling the stories that are personal to her and those behind her commissions.
Peeking between bookshelves in her studio is a framed print of Norman Rockwell’s “Triple Self-Portrait,” a piece from her favorite artist and fellow storyteller. It makes sense that Jo Anne is drawn to someone who shares the same commitment to detail and narrative-focused artwork that she channels in her own work.
Her pieces never go without a title and a backstory, which she usually shares on social media with photos of what she’s working on or the complete piece. Sometimes, those stories are the ones given to her—what she calls people’s “heart-tugs” that they’ve come to her with—or stories and inspiration of her own. Her writings about each piece are almost like devotionals, often including the prayers that interconnect with her pieces.
“This perspective, starting a second career, I’m not like I was coming out of college,” she says. “I’m enjoying my art and my time in a way that ministers to others. I love painting all kinds of things—abstract or realistically, or landscapes, flowers, people—because I’ve had 40 years of helping others do that.”
In paints, charcoal, graphite or ink, Jo Anne captures meaning in simple scenes: hands held within each other, a grandfather and granddaughter tending the garden, the house where a couple got married or where their parents grew up. “These are the kind of things that are so powerfully touching,” she says. “They’re moments that are in your heart for a long time.”
In her body of work, you’ll find angels and heavenly scenes, florals and nature, and people and families as Jo Anne’s primary subject matter, which she often pulls from her own family, from scripture or from images in her mind.
Her style is the storytelling—she never limits herself to certain subjects, sizes and textures, or specific techniques that bind her work into one category. She’s always curious to paint in a different way or tackle a new style of portraiture.
Likewise, with her teaching background, she’s guided students to create work of all kinds and continues to search for that breadth. She’s drawn to the different backgrounds and experiences people bring to her and gets lost in the creative process, adding life and dimension to their stories, just like she does with her own.
Jo Anne becomes so close to every piece she works on and has always felt that familiarity with art. She knows she can still pick out the work of her students from decades ago—in fact, it’s happened before—because she knows the pieces and has a distinct way of teaching and capturing an image.
She would surely still recognize the ink drawings and paintings that my mom still has matted and framed on her walls, in the same way I recognize the techniques I still pull from her class. Whether or not her students now are still active artists, Jo Anne has impacted something in their creative life, or in the way they see the world.
“In my artwork and in what my students do, a piece of me’s in it,” she says. “There’s heart tugs in each one, especially when you’re praying for certain situations that are difficult, and you know this painting will be a ray of hope.”
Giggles and Hugs
After she retired, Jo Anne’s first goal was to publish a children’s book. From the beginning of the writing and illustration process to the release, she achieved her goal in about one year. Giggles and Hugs is a collection of stories for grandchildren and pulls from Jo Anne’s own experiences with her five grandchildren.
All in the Family
It’s no surprise that Jo Anne’s two daughters, Alieta Young Casey and Julie Young Tucker, developed artistic talent and passions of their own, and both still live in the Birmingham area with their families and continue to pursue art. Alieta shares her insight on interior design and décor through her blog and Instagram account, Alieta Treasure Hunting, while Julie is producing custom artwork like her mom with Bridal Illustrations by Julie.