Kent Youngstrom holds up his first two fingers, his middle digit warped from an old basketball injury.
Dos. Deux. That is precisely how many questions you can ask Kent Youngstrom before he starts to lowkey bristle at the interruption of his time (think “super soft geriatric toothbrush” kind of bristling).
Kent Youngstrom’s artist’s studio, a 2,000 sqf warehouse, sits behind a conveniently located QT convenience store in a suburban-y industrial park outside of Charlotte. I am also conveniently located at that very QT as Kent does an afternoon energy drink run, $17 spent on harsh-yet-satisfying jolts of creatine.
Topped off with energy drinks, we set off on the rest of Kent’s Point A to Point E errands trip: to FedEx to ship YOUR painting (hopefully?), then to the dry cleaners, then possibly a peanut butter banana smoothie (fingers crossed), ending at Harris Teeter to buy whole wheat pizza dough for the studio Ooni oven.
“Why only two questions?” I asked him after we had returned to his studio, smoothies in hand (cha-ching). “Wait, did that count as a question? Am I out of questions?”
He ignores my questions about the questions.
“I run out of words,” he says. He grabs the Roku remote and turns on the television. Kent has gone all gaga and heart-eyes over Netflix’s beautiful nature series, Our Planet II. Whether it’s the sheer volume of red crabs on Christmas Island or the sneaky seal-stealing polar bears, he’s obsessed. “Make a hole, mom! Get the pup!” he yells to the screen. He relaxes with an audible exhale only after the mother seal pulls her seal pup through a hole in the ice, just out of reach of the polar bears’ mitts. Don’t tell anyone, but this guy’s got a heart the size of a walrus.
I am, however, beginning to suspect that his “running out of words” bit is based entirely on the cleverness of his interlocutor. His sharp wit is irritatingly quick—it begs players in his conversations to keep up with his verbal sparring. We spent a solid fifteen minutes creating workable puns out of the last names of former presidents (“Eisenhower you?”). He’s not shy about his intelligence, laughing close to tears whenever he comes up with a passable play (“Come on, that was so good!”).
Five p.m. in Kent’s studio doesn’t look like the EOB you’re probably used to. He’s on the creative ascent of his day, his administrative duties (read: bulk ordering, printing out FedEx shipping labels, etc.) were completed pre-lunch but post-CrossFit. Using a notched rubber spatula designed for cake decorating, he pulls texture across the canvas. I’m gathering that Kent doesn’t use many items how they’re intended as I roll out the Ooni pizza dough with his “rolling pin” (it’s a cardboard mailing tube).
Overall studio vibe is mid-century modern meets spin art. Canvases stack against black studio walls, and green plants pepper the studio, each in various stages of, um, un-alive-ness. His art hangs across the studio at 57” center (the intensity with which he tells you always to hang your art at 57” center! warrants that exclamation mark). He sits down in his vintage Herman Miller rolling chair, an orange-cushioned, paint-pocked gem (circa ’73) found two decades ago in a dumpster in Chicago. A stifled yawn interrupts a sip of a caffeine-free Zevia cola from a needs-to-be-washed Yeti tumbler, which is set down again on his behemoth coffee table made from the wood of a now-gutted bowling lane.
He pulls out his kraft brown journal, a “mind”field of ideas for new paintings, novel (if not prudent) business ideas, clever greeting card sayings, and ideas for potential collaborations with other artists (looking at you, Macklemore). Morgan Wallen croons about love + whiskey over the Bluetooth speaker, and the tv is now murmuring ESPN sports stats. Kent rolls his eyes, calling out the idiocy of rehiring Gregg Berlacher as the coach of the USA’s World Cup team.
“He doesn’t know how to coach!” he shouts at the television, his eyebrows wired into arcs of annoyance. “I’m not even going to get started,” he grumbles. He gets up from the chair and heads to the cluster of new Queen + King paintings. I hear the hiss of a Montana spray can (color: black) and the subsequent rattle of a box fan. He bebops to an adjacent table covered in a series of canvases, six 9 x 12s brushed with blues and greens. FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON’T GIVE UP is scrawled across each canvas in Kent’s recognizable all-caps penmanship. Viscous resin drips down the sides of the canvas, catching on pre-laid wax paper. With a blowtorch, we heat-treat the air pockets bubbling through the epoxy. (I admittedly wielded the Bernzomatic awkwardly, my pulse quick-stepping when I thought I set fire to one of his paintings.)
He stretches his right arm above his head, his forearm covered with inked raspberry and honeysuckle vines. These botanicals play the second stage to wide, flowering peonies that sleeve up his arms; a paintbrush-headed octopus inks his shoulder.
“I’m the octopus,” he says, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Always doing eight things at once.” I can see what he means—he’s a solitary creature for most of his day, a balloon filled with air and then let go, ricocheting his path around the studio.
His mind is Mardi Gras, a carnival of a million ideas, coupled with burgeoning anxiety and the EST start time for every Premiere League match. In his occupation, he is both the puppeteer and the marionette, in charge of manipulating the same strings that pull him from one project to another. His hourly thought: What do I have to do next? His to-dos flip eternally through a sort of cognitive Rolodex: canvases, clients, collaborations, costs.
“My brain is still painting when it’s time to sleep,” he admits.
He’s recently turned to meditation to perhaps coax his brain into a type of stillness, even if for just a few minutes. A pause in the energy. A shift in his mindset. Although still malleable in his mastery, these moments force Kent to rest—and to reset.
“I want to be present with people, with painting. And to think of more puns,” he says.
While he is learning to sit in stillness, by no means does he sit still. His pacing is trophy-worthy. So incredibly movement-centered Kent is, he has, on occasion, stripped down to his Tommy Johns to jump into a rowing competition as an impromptu stand-in. (There are photos.) Kent stands up from his chair and begins again to wear out the studio’s concrete floors. “Have you seen my ____________?” peppers the air (options here include his wallet, phone, paintbrush, box cutter—take your pick). He’s a blur in his Beers for Burpee’s tee, spackle-covered jorts, and yellow Adidas sneakers. Acrylic paint graffiti his shoes with abandon, a cacophony of color splattered across suede. This pair is but one in his plethora of paint shoes—he’s a bit of a sneaker enthusiast (“enthusiast” seems mild, actually).
His wall of kicks is a point of pride for Kent.
“I remember the first pair of shoes I bought that I really wanted,” he says. “A pair of Pumas. They were $80 or something.” That sweet suede did a number on this guy; what served as an occasional reward for selling a painting turned into shoegasms of the canvas and leather varieties, including a hand-sewn pair reclaimed from old baseball gloves.
In high school, a strict dress code shoe policy was enforced: the penny loafer. This uncomfortable choice didn’t make, er, cents to Kent, and he hated the sound of their clickety-clack on the linoleum. Even during high school and college soccer, he had to play in pairs of secondhand cleats (RIP Patrick cleats with a big hole in the toe). To this day, good quality, kinda-obscure shoes sure make him all fluttery inside. He maaay still celebrate an achievement or two with a new pair of the coolest shoes you’ve never heard of. You’ll have to ask him.
Kent’s a fascinating object of study. He chucks a chunk of wadded plastic wrap at the trash can (he made it), drops his marker on the table, and urgently scans the studio’s perimeter, neck craned. He flicks his forefinger, murmuring a singsongy “mmhmm!” as he takes off to the back corner of the studio. Here exists his colony of spray paint—he chooses a teal blue and a fine-tip cap. As he shakes the can, the marble inside clatters against its aluminum sides.
Naturally goofy and unnaturally clever, Kent exudes a certain confidence (sans bravado). He’s a thinker with a distaste for mediocrity. He believes in his ability to create something that means something to you. Something that matters. He sees the beauty in thinking differently, in shattering clichés to create stunning visual conversations for you. He’s a little glowy with gentle pride for the work he does. However, inverse to this confidence is its warring counterpart: the sting of imposter syndrome. Fears pierce him, as well, targeting his deepest vulnerabilities. For just a moment, I am privy to his admission of inadequacy: Kent Youngstrom, the giant ruse. We are navigating some expansive emotional territory here on these splattered floors.
“I never thought I’d be an artist where someone would buy my work,” he admits. Who really knows how to become anything? He has spent most of his fifty years thinking, problem-solving, and behaving differently (he has a standing appointment for gray matte gel nails at the salon down the street). While Kent has always been an artist, transitioning to full-time artist-ing required a deviation from the regular 9-to-5.
His shift from design to full-time painting was pock-marked with challenges. For one, money WAS an object; the cost of purchasing art supplies felt foreign and uncomfortable. To combat receipt shock, Kent took a night job answering phones for Land’s End. After morning workouts and the daily school carpool, he would work and paint and create in his two-car garage, learning how to call himself an artist. Rinse and repeat.
Surprises were the norm. When he first began painting bulk orders for CB2 in 2012, he ordered the boxes in which he would package each hand-painted piece. Assuming the boxes arrived ready to ship, he was wholly surprised (and pissed) when the boxes came flat and unassembled. He was suddenly in need of a tape machine.
Really, he knew nothing about selling art. Once, he won a blue ribbon for Best Booth but sold approximately, well, nothing.
“The ribbon they gave me still hangs in my studio,” he says, a reminder of just where he started. At his first Harding Art Show, he showed up with naked paintings (not of people, just minus any boxes, wrapping material, and prices). The only piece he sold? A painting of wine bottles. For $300. And he needed the $300.
“I could’ve skipped around the room,” he says.
He tells me stories of mispriced products and having to honor the mislabeled price (eek, $500 for a $5000 painting?), mixed-up deadlines, remaking paintings for clients when he made mistakes, and accidentally wasting expensive materials.
“I still don’t know how to clean my oil brushes really well,” he says, shrugging.
As a result of a tough (and ongoing) artist’s journey, Kent is a staunch supporter of the underdog. A deep-rooted attraction for work ethic (in him and others) has him cheering on those who work hard(er) to upset the champion. In the same vein, he’ll admit to his mid-level leaderboard standings.
“I’m not the best player on the soccer pitch. I’m not the best artist in the community,” he says. “But I’ll make you want to be on my team. I will make you a better player. I will make us a better team. I will work harder than anyone else.”
Cue music from a sports movie montage.
What some people don’t understand, Kent explains, is the sacrifice of others who have invested in him—the generosity of others’ wisdom and time. Artists, mentors, and businesses have provided him with slips of information, networked with him their resources, and neighbored with him at art shows. People have believed in him. They continue to believe in him. They have given him grace and knowledge in the best way.
Along those lines, he has become an artist venture capitalist, if you will. He has followed the lead of those who led him, and he currently invests his resources into, drumroll please, the underdogs by mentoring local artists and photographers.
Remember the octopus? He’s getting antsy. (This is my fault, I brought too many questions.) Kent propels himself through the studio, adding final touches to canvases. His pinky finger twitches slightly as he surveys his work. I blurt out my final question: Why does he choose to be generous with others?
He pauses his brush strokes: “Because people were generous with me.”
At this, he puts his paintbrushes away and sits on his pink, graffitied couch, his computer in his lap. He and I sit in comfortably awkward silence for a few moments. I notate and scrawl observations in my notebook, and he politely ignores me.
It’s fine, though.
He has finally run out of words.
expose by kiera brynne