The youngest living artist to have works sold by auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, American artist Stephen Scott Young is a master of modern realist watercolour. We talk exclusively to him about his Bahamas-inspired paintings and an upcoming exhibition of his new regatta series
As a student studying print making and etching at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota (Florida), Stephen Scott Young met a fellow student majoring in graphic design. “She was only 18, I was only 20,” he recalls. The young woman later became Young’s wife. This relationship not only changed the course of his personal life, but also set the direction for his career in the art world.
Young’s wife is a seventh generation Bahamian from Nassau and his marriage to her led to him visiting The Bahamas in 1983. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “The light, the colour. I had never seen anything quite like the Caribbean light… it changed my whole life.”
Young was captivated by the raw, natural beauty of the islands. Throughout the 80s and 90s, he travelled to The Bahamas once per month to paint everyday scenes of people and landscapes. “I would go once a month for ten days. Maybe sometimes two weeks. I went back and forth,” he says. Right from the start he preferred the laidback lifestyle of the Out Islands to Nassau. In the early years, Young regularly visited Harbour Island to paint. “That was before it became popular,” he explains. “Back then it was a regular English settlement from the 1600s. You could walk the streets and there was hardly anyone there.”
As Harbour Island became increasingly developed, Young was drawn to the tranquillity and simplicity of life on quiet neighbouring Eleuthera. The island became his second home and his muse. “It just has a certain momentum and energy,” he says. “As soon as I get off the plane from Florida I change completely. The smells, the feeling of it, it’s just so different. The people, the roosters crowing, the dogs, goats everywhere, the life there… It inspires me to work.”
Through countless visits over many years to the Out Islands of The Bahamas, Young has carefully observed the people and landscape which have inspired the majority of his work, including his well-known watercolours of Bahamian children playing with marbles and model boats. Young prefers to paint people he knows and landscapes he is familiar with. “I like to find somewhere that I can feel comfortable and know the people instead of going there as a stranger,” Young explains. “I knew everybody that I was painting. Most of the kids I started painting when they were really young and painted them until they became adults and then had children of their own. Then I ended up painting their children.”
As a result, Young’s paintings expertly depict a time and a place. They also perfectly capture his affection for Eleuthera and its people. “I love the subject matter,” he says emphatically. He refutes the comments of some critics which suggest his paintings contain hidden political messages. “I don’t particularly try to focus on a message… Some people used to think that I would paint some of the people because they’re poor or because they come from an Out Island where they don’t have many of the things that we have in America. But that’s not the reason at all. I actually thought they were luckier than us. They live a wonderful life. I just loved the way they looked.” “It’s mostly about beauty,” he adds. “I just like the way it looks. Honestly, there’s really no hidden meaning in most of the paintings.”
Young’s watercolours are celebrated for their honest and charming portrayal of life in the Out Islands. Numerous pieces have been sold at auction by Christie’s and Sotheby’s and snapped up by galleries including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Greenville County Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. However, the majority of his work is in private collections.
Paintings of one child from Eleuthera brought Young even greater fame. The child was a young girl called Cindy who Young painted several times. On a visit to a New York gallery, one particular painting of Cindy caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey who has reportedly acquired several pieces of his work. She bought the painting as a gift for a very special recipient. “She gave it to Barack Obama when he was elected in 2008,” Young tells me. “It was quite an honour. It was really unexpected… It was a great thrill for me,” he recalls humbly.
More recently, Young has sought a new challenge. Since 2014 his focus has shifted from depicting people to painting boats on the water in The Bahamas. “I’ve been seeing boats my entire life in The Bahamas. I’ve painted them on and off for many years, just sketching. Then, for some reason, I saw a regatta and I thought I’d really like to learn how to do this,” he tells me. “Painting boats on the water was the most difficult challenge in my entire career. It took a long time. I threw away a lot of paintings before I was able to get anything that looked like water and the boat looked like it was actually in the water. It’s very hard to do because it is moving. I studied it for hours and hours, just watching it move.” “I’m still working on it. I still don’t have it exactly as I want it.” Thus Young’s regatta series was born. Each year Young travels to the regattas on Exuma, Harbour Island and Cat Island. Inspired by the works of 19th Century American realist painter Winslow Homer, the resulting series of paintings capture the long boating tradition of The Bahamas and the light, colour, energy and movement of the boats in the archipelago’s waters.
The regatta series is set to be the subject of a major international solo exhibition which Young is delighted to announce. “The regatta exhibition is going to open in the year 2018,” he says. “It’s going to open at the Greenville County Museum in Greenville, South Carolina. They have a large collection of my work. There will be 200 works – my biggest show ever. The show should travel around the United States.” A book by Dr Abigail Booth Gerdts, author of a catalogue of works by Winslow Homer, will accompany the exhibition.
To discover more works by Stephen Scott Young and for information on his upcoming exhibition, please visit www.stephenscottyoung.com.