This story was put together for Very Local by Brian Conway. You can see more of his stories here.
Janel Young is standing in the middle of Fort Duquesne Blvd. reflecting on her latest artistic creation, a colorful street design she calls “Pathway to Joy.” The installment is part of the 2021 Three Rivers Arts Festival and her largest-led mural to date, running the entire length of this Downtown Pittsburgh street between Sixth and Stanwix.
She arrived for our photoshoot and interview looking very much the part of athlete meets artist, her long, tightly-braided hair falling over her custom-made baseball jersey—with matching orange sneakers and socks.
The makings of an artist
Janel is Pittsburgh born and bred. She grew up in the Beltzhoover neighborhood of the South Hills, discovering her interest in and talent for art at a young age. She dabbled in drawing, sketching, and even pottery work, but she ultimately realized that painting was her creative outlet of choice.
“Even though I’ve painted since I was very young, I didn’t fully realize my love for it until I was in middle school,” she said.
Janel majored in visual arts at Rogers CAPA (Rogers CAPA was an arts magnet school in Pittsburgh) where, in seventh grade, she was selected to be part of a mural painting team. That’s when she realized how much she loved painting—and that she was good at it. She credits her family and teachers for instilling a sense of confidence and belief in her talents. Much of her inspiration and influence as an artist comes from the encouragement of her mother, who helped her develop the assurance, willingness, and work ethic necessary to be the woman she is today.
“There are so many people that have influenced me, but my mom is first and foremost,” she continued. “She allowed me to experiment and try different things. She was always supportive of me in doing that.”
Several of Janel’s teachers noticed her talent and provided additional support:
“I’ve had many educators from a young age who encouraged me to do art,” she said. “MaryAnn Miller was my art teacher in elementary school. She would work with me on lunch breaks and after school to look at advanced techniques and enter my work into local contests. She and my mom helped me put together a portfolio so I could go to Rogers, which was a pretty rigorous process, especially for a fifth grader.”
Janel took International Baccalaureate Art at Schenley High School where she delved into a progressive curriculum that she likened to a master’s program, complete with independent learning. It was there that teacher Karen Price gave her the motivation to dive deeper into the meaning behind her art. (Schenley High School closed in 2008. The Schenley High School building is now apartments. Pittsburgh author, Jake Oresick, recently published a book about the school “The Schenley Experiment: A Social History of Pittsburgh’s First Public High School.” [Bookshop.org, Amazon]
“She pushed me to do the research behind my work and to be intentional about what I chose to create and also how to explain it,” Janel said.
Growing up, Janel loved visiting local venues like the Mattress Factory and the Andy Warhol Museum. She worked on her first mural when she was six or seven years old. But it wasn’t until her relocation to New York City (post-college) that she saw how much more street and public art there was in other places — and to realize what was needed locally.
A leap of faith
After studying Business Marketing and International Studies and graduating from Penn State University, she moved to NYC. There she spent five years in the corporate world working as a Digital Content Strategist for a PR agency that catered to the health care, tech, and nonprofit industries. Eventually, however, she found her way back to Pittsburgh via a series of events to pursue her passion for painting full time. The decision to work for herself, at the time, was a stressful one to make, but looking back, she’s glad she took the step to follow her heart.
“People give me credit for being courageous enough to take the leap, but it probably took me a year to finally make the decision,” she said.
Moving back to Pittsburgh was a decision in itself. Janel envisioned herself staying in NYC to cultivate her connections and pursue her art career, but the whole process felt forced. She determined that it made more sense for her to be in Pittsburgh, so as she let go of one pursuit, it became easier for her to make the Steel City home once again.
Her first project upon returning was to paint an entire basketball court in her old neighborhood at McKinley Park. Entitled “The Home Court Advantage Project,” it’s the first art basketball court in the city of Pittsburgh. She also became connected with others in the local art community. The mutual support and appreciation for public art helped her move forward with her desire to create.
From social distancing to Serena Williams
“I’m charged up about painting in all kinds of colors because I think we could use more murals and more art,” she said. “I really think we’re getting there. The city is now having the cultural shift that’s needed to hire a multitude of artists to do different projects and pour money back into art.”
Janel’s work has been featured throughout Pittsburgh and around the world. She was one of four artists commissioned by the Carnegie Library to design a special-edition library card. She teamed with the Downtown Partnership to create colorful social distance designs during the COVID-19 pandemic — including six reworked natural hair portraits from her 2016 Black Girl Magic series. Her first 3D murals entitled “Heroes on the Horizon” are on display at the popular Bakery Square development in the city’s East End. Then there’s the aforementioned hand-painted street mural that graces Ft. Duquesne Blvd., featuring her signature tribal patterns. She’s still amazed at seeing her work around the city.
“Sometimes it still feels very surreal,” she admitted. “I worked very hard to be where I am and to have the experiences I have now. I think it’s paying off. It’s a blessing. I always felt that something like this was possible, but I’m not sure I truly believed it would happen. I knew as a little kid that I wanted to be an artist, but I don’t think I imagined that it would be like this. And that feels really good.”
Janel’s day-to-day routine involves much more than just creative work, however. As a thriving entrepreneur, her schedule is actually more administrative than artistic. About 20% of her time is spent painting while the rest is split among a wide variety of duties, like research, problem-solving, networking, applying for funding, answering emails, posting to social media, budgeting, payroll, and much more. As for the artistic side, there’s more there than meets the eye as well.
“I’ll spend a lot of time reworking ideas before I ever put a paintbrush to any surface,” she said. “It’s much more than what people see with the end result.”
Her natural talent and dedication to her craft have led to a diverse list of clients, collaborations, and commissions — the likes of which include Yahoo!, Harley Davidson, Verizon Media, and many others.
When I asked what her “coolest” moment has been so far as an artist, she admitted it was difficult to pick just one, but she singled out the time when she saw her artwork on ESPN at the 2020 U.S. Open. Her canvas for the United States Tennis Association (USTA), titled “Be Open To…,” was pictured behind childhood idol Serena Williams courtside at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens.
“That was amazing!” she exclaimed. “Serena’s an athlete I look up to and to see her—one of the most famous people in the world—standing in front of my artwork. Wow!”
‘To create work that represents us’
Moreover, Janel finds tremendous satisfaction in inspiring others with her artwork.
“Something that’s awesome to me is seeing people’s reactions to my work, especially little kids,” she said. “They tell the truth, so if they say they love it, they really love it. It feels good to know that there’s a Black woman artist that they can look up to or be inspired by. I don’t remember having that here.”
Does she think her art plays an important role to create awareness on social issues or to bring people together?
“I believe my work is important, but it’s difficult to say how important,” she said. “I think it’s important for me to be able to represent myself, as an individual, but also Black people, women, and Black women. To create work that represents us, especially in a place like Pittsburgh where we may feel unseen or unheard.”
Janel feels that ultimately, her work gives people something to react to:
“I think some of my more political work definitely takes a stab at social and justice issues. It creates a conversation. A lot of times it can be polarizing. A lot of times it can build a bridge. It depends on how people interpret the work and I think that’s the point—to get people to react. If the art makes you angry, or sad, or happy, it’s still a reaction. So my job is done. The mission has been accomplished.”
Janel added, however, that she wants to create from a place of joy. She wants to make art that people can feel upbeat about.
“I say this all the time,” she admitted. “Creating those other pieces—the more social or justice pieces—is very taxing, emotionally and mentally. You have to balance it with something else. And I think that’s a privilege a lot of Black artists don’t have: to create just because they love creating. Lately, people have been asking, ‘What happened between 2020 and now that everyone wants to hire Black artists to do everything?’ Well, they see that we have a story to tell, number one, but are they only coming to Black artists when it’s something heavy they want us to share? What about our joyful experiences? They want us to talk about police brutality and people getting killed, but what about the things that make us happy and joyful?”
She paused and smiled, looking over her shoulder at the street behind us:
“What about some colors and shapes?” she said with a gleam in her eye, referencing her “Pathway to Joy” creation.
“Sometimes Black artists don’t feel the liberty to be — whimsical. It’s like everything has to be profound. I think it’s important to see a Black woman having fun making her art—and enjoying the process. I think that’s just as important as telling a very heavy story and making sure that story is told accurately.”
So, is Janel creating from a place of joy now? She didn’t hesitate to answer:
“Yes,” she beamed. “This is what I asked for. I worked for it and I prayed it would happen. I’m a full-time painter and that’s very fulfilling.”