Elizabeth Jean Younce | Thinnest of Lines
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 14 aug 2019
Anyone who knows me for more than a day or two has heard me talk about my dog. She is one of the aspects of myself I bring up early on in the “getting to know you” part of any relationship, and having recently moved continents, I have been having that part of a relationships repeatedly and often. To know about Ebe - pronounced Eee Bee - is to know about me in some fundamental way, despite the fact that she passed away almost two years ago. I rescued her when she was one and a half years old from a shelter on the rural Washington State peninsula (but who rescued who, am I right?). The shelter was small, with only five kennels, and unfortunately placed down the road from a gun range so the dogs and cats were subject to almost constant popping sounds. As soon as I met her I knew she was my dog, I filled out the application that day, and then immediately bought the shelter $95 worth of items from their Amazon wishlist, included with the very subtle note, “It was so nice meeting Ebe today! I hope she and the other dogs enjoy these items. xx Miranda Kielland Metcalf.” Including my full name of course, unless there was any confusion as to who this bribe was from. Ebe and I spent the next three years together spooning each other in bed every night, hiking every weekend, and sharing corn chips on the sofa in front of Deadwood. She was with me through hard break-ups and the most dazzling love affair of my life. Watching the gentleness with which my now-husband interacted with her was a big part of why I married him. Ebe was felled without warning at five by her fragile back. It was a congenital spine defect that had not been detected until she was discovered on the floor of my living room paralysed from the waist down. There was blood. There was shit. There were thousands of dollars in medical tests. There were uncountable tears by those who knew her. I tell you this story, dear readers, not to bum you out intensely, or for an excuse to talk about my dog (not that I ever miss one) but because it remains one of the most powerful experiences of my life. One which illustrated for me, viscerally and painfully, that thinnest of lines between life and death is made of blood, shit, and tears. It is the brutality of passing from one state to another. Getting to know and love Ebe taught me about the unmatched bliss and wonder that non-human animals can give us and their heartbreaking honesty in regard to their pain and their own bodies. I think about all of these things when I think about the prints of Elizabeth Jean Younce.
Younce’s lithographs are beautiful, brutal, and unflinching in their detail. In her print Mother Bird II an anthropomorphic swan squeezes an oversized egg from her labia. The egg drips with fluids and hovers precariously; it is partially within the safety of its mother, but on its way to the open jaws of a snake. The snake’s body is wrapped all the way around a tree, and around the body of the swan. The swan, despite being on the verge of losing her egg, has far from given up. Younce has captured the scene in a way that despite the fact that the swan is being overwhelmed, the viewer cannot be sure which way this battle will end, which creature will keep the precious egg that hovers in the messy state between life and death.
This kind of honesty in capturing nature, the seeing and celebrating the beauty as well as the grotesque, can only come from those who have gotten to know the natural world intimately. While she and her husband now share a small bungalow in Los Angeles, California, Younce describes her natural state as frolicing in the woods with a dog off leash. She grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, and had never left New England or boarded a plane until she took off for art school at the age of 17. Younce attended the Savannah College of Art and Design, and while she had originally gone there to be a graphic designer, she took one printmaking class and fell hard: got the brayer tattoo, received her MFA in printmaking at the venerated University of Wisconsin, Madison, and went on to work at Tandem Press for three years.
Yet nature was never far from her mind. Animals have always been present in her work. She uses them as symbols for her own experience, for the human condition, or for memories from when she was young. Younce openly talks about her life long relationship with depression and the feeling of chaos it sews into her life. “It can feel like everything is burning down around you,” she says. It is that chaos which she diffuses into the animals in her practice. For her BFA exhibition, Younce printed an immersive tunnel of beetles that spiralled in on itself, forcing the viewer to crouch lower and lower as they entered the piece. In the smallest part there were images of rabbits developing through their lifecycle, starting as helpless, sightless babies, but as they grew they began to develop an armadillo shell on their backs to protect themselves as well. “They don’t want to be fragile,” Younce says of the work, “They want to protect themselves from the chaos.”
It was in the transition from undergraduate to graduate school that the pregnant swans began to appear in Younce’s practice. For most everyone I know, myself included, graduate school is something of a minor trauma. My philosophising on why exactly this is could fill an entire other entry or two, but suffice to say, Younce was no exception, and perhaps had it a little harder than others. Right when she moved to Madison she and her husband’s three year old German Shepherd, Abraham, developed a small lump on his side. While tests came back that it was benign, it continued to grow. So they decided to have it removed. During the scans conducted in preparation for the surgery, it was discovered that the lump was just a small part of a massive cancer that had already spread to Abraham’s lungs. At three years old, he had two months to live. Younce had gotten Abraham as puppy when she was a sophomore in her undergraduate program. “He didn’t know anything when he came into my life, I taught him so many things,” she says. They had grown up together. I identify so strongly with this experience. There is nothing like having your companion, who is so close they feel like they are a part of you, suddenly go from being a strong, independent being with movement, breath, and life, to a state which forces you to confront the reality that the insides of their body are destroying them while you are helpless to save them. During this transition between Savannah and Madison, undergrad to graduate school, and life and death for her pup is when the swans, or Cygnus sapiens as Younce calls them, began to appear in her practice.
Cygnus sapiens translates to “wise bird,” and for Younce the creature represents the contradiction of a fragile, female, feathered creature persevering despite everything that is working against her. For Younce’s MFA she created a grand five panel, five color, eleven foot print that is the world of the Cygnus sapiens. Drawing unabashedly and beautifully from Herinomous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the piece titled “A great Hope fell, You heard no noise, The Ruin was within, Oh cunning wreck that told no tale, And let no Witness in,” shows the world of Younce’s Cygnus sapiens with pleasures and pleasantries on the left , which deteriorate into the painful decay on the right. Centered in the middle panel, eight Cygnus sapiens face a fountain, legs spread eggs emerging. The other creatures who inhabit the Cygnus sapiens’’’ world, the bat, the bore, the fox, the ape with a gun, are much larger and seemingly much stronger than them, but the Cygnus sapiens prevail and thrive in the dangerous world. It is a world of ordered chaos, dream-like in its specificity. It’s about birth, life, death, and the chaotic state of existence. “I don’t understand why any of this is happening at all,” says Younce referring to our very existence, reminding me of Alice’s famous sentiment from her travels in Wonderland, “How strange it is to be anything at all.” Younce has created her own folklore to sort through the chaos of our current world, pushing back on the expectations she has found placed on her petite, five foot three frame. It would be short sighted to think about the Cygnus sapiens outside of a feminist context, and outside of the swans standing in for Younce: seemingly delicate creatures with surprising strength and ambition.
Younce’s ambition isn’t limited to eleven-foot, five layer prints, she is also her very own boss lady. Her small business - Mustard Beetle Handmade: textile, press, and goods - which started in the summer of 2015 in her mother’s living room now occupies 200 of her 600 square foot bungalow. For the business, Younce creates her own and offers services in screen printing, letter press, relief and giclee as well as producing a range of goods for the home - and coming soon - handmade apparel. She does the hustle, running the craft fair circuit, networking with clients around the country, and building her community in her newly adopted hometown of Los Angeles. Mustard Beetle Handmade helps support Younce and her husband when it has been a slow quarter for sales of feminist, swan-based lithographs. She’s building a life on her own terms, brick by brick with an eye to one day set up shop somewhere with a gallery in front and a community press in back where she can teach workshops and rent space to fellow printmakers. At least that was the plan until a few weeks ago when she visited the studio of an elderly French lithographer.
Younce was connected to Pascal Giraudon through a mutual colleague. Giraudon, now in his 70s, had worked at the famous Atelier Lacourière of Paris in the 1970s and 1980s where artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, and Jean Miró had all at one point had their editions published. Since 2016 Giraudon had been running Atypical Prints in Los Angeles, and was looking for someone to help with lithographic printing. Younce arrived thinking she was interviewing essentially for a part-time summer job, but after they had toured the studio together the visit turned out to be something else entirely. Back in his office, Giraudon shared with her that he is dying, and looking for an heir to his legacy. Someone who will take over the printshop he has lovingly tended and who will continue to contribute to printmaking’s growth and evolution in Southern California. He thinks that Younce is just that person. “I spent the first two weeks after this conversation crying just about every day,” Younce recalls. She now finds herself in a moment of great transition, on the precipice of the birth of her career as a master printer in her own studio, while she is witness to the death of a generous, talented member of our community. Giraudon, it seems, is a bit more decidedly French about the whole matter, “You are dying the moment you are born,” he says of his circumstance.
Younce’s opportunity comes at the cost of an incredible loss, but she is not alone in this. Our generation of printmakers are in a position to take over from those passing on, those who have run the print studios and galleries before us. The people who are passionate about our medium and who kept the lights on through the twentieth century, are retiring and moving on. I believe that we are all witness to a time of great transition when the death and the life of our shared passion are both within the realm of possibilities. I think I can tell a lot about a person by whether or not they believe printmaking has a future. It tells you something fundamental about how they see the world if they describe printmaking as a “dying medium” rather than an evolving medium. Just as with Younce’s lithographs, it all depends on your point of view - how you interpret the chaos - as a birth or a death.