Considering all of the showbiz luminaries and lesser lights that Harriet Young palled around with in mid-century Las Vegas, and the power and richness of the work that followed, the scarcity of information about her life leaves us with an unclear and above all deeply unsatisfying picture of who she was. The legacy of paintings she left to the world, and which in the summer of 2014 it has yet to discover, creates an urgency to know more, and we can only hope that this long overdue presentation of her art will serve as a catalyst to draw out at least some of the rest of what is known.
In advance of a one woman show, she gave an interview to the suburban Philadelphia Montgomery Times Chronicle in April, 1996, two weeks before her sudden death at age 67, just as critical recognition was starting to catch up with her. Her life as an artist lasted a mere four years, and began with basic instruction at the nearby Cheltenham Center for the Arts, just north of Philadelphia. Beyond that there is next to nothing that has come to light, and while one goal of this website is to make contact with people who knew her, for the present further insight into Harriet Young will have to come from her work. This is never a sure thing, since for many art provides what life cannot, but there is nevertheless much to infer and to celebrate, as the artwork on this website makes clear.
Here are a few things we do know. Census records indicate she was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1930, the youngest of five children. She died suddenly in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, on May 13, 1996, the first full day of her 67th year, and is buried in the Montefiore Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in neighboring Jenkintown. Information concerning her death was and remains difficult to come by. In any case, with interview in hand and her birth date known, we can now place her heading out to Las Vegas in the mid to late ’50s, and then leaving 18 years later in the mid to late ’70s. The period between her leaving Las Vegas and her return to Philadelphia circa 1990 is essentially unaccounted for.
A few more things we know:
Whatever her contemporary influences – neon Las Vegas, Hollywood glamour, pop art irreverence, folk art primitivism – Harriet embraced it, absorbed it, and in the end forged it all into outsider art uniquely her own through the power of her own vision.
So prepare to find yourself in new territory as you journey through The Art of Harriet Young. We love to hear from visitors, so please feel free to contact us with your comments and suggestions.
7/12/2015: David Estey has provided a splendid remembrance of Harriet Young during the last month of her life in Philadelphia. It greatly expands our understanding of events during this important period, adding to and occasionally superceding the narrative above, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the personal side of this most unusual woman.
From the Times Chronicle
(Montgomery County, PA) April, 1996
When Frank Sinatra walked into the Las Vegas casino, he would always request that Harriet Young, the Indian, bring him his drink.
“He called me the Indian because I had long plaits and dark skin,” said Young. “He was nice to me, but kind of mean to most.”
Young, a former Las Vegas showgirl, is now living in Elkins Park, working as a masseuse and a painter.
“Broadway to Hollywood,” an exhibit of Young’s paintings, will be on display at The Abington Fitness and Country Club from May 1-31.
A Philadelphia native, Young went to Las Vegas to get a divorce. She had two small children when her husband left her. In Las Vegas she could get a divorce without her husband’s consent.
“I started to walk around Las Vegas and like it,” said Young, who wound up staying there for 18 years.
She was working as a cocktail waitress, when she started to sell the showgirls wigs and cosmetics from a beauty parlor to make some extra money.
One night one of the showgirls got sick and because of the rapport Young had developed with them, they asked her to fill in.
During her career, she met many celebrities including Tom Jones, who invited her to parties often, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Rickels, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the nicest people Young ever met, while Jerry Lewis, who she loved as a child, was not a nice person in real life.
Rickels is a “very shy and quiet man.” He lights up when he gets on stage and is like another person, Young said. He explained to her that the stage is his outlet.
In contrast to the Mommy Dearest title that Joan Crawford earned, Young said, “She was very down to earth and nice to talk to.” Young liked her better than Bette Davis, who seemed to let fame go to her head.
“It was a wild time in my life, one of the best times in my life,” Young said of Las Vegas. “It doesn’t get much more exciting than that, except when I do a painting.”
After leading such an exciting life in Las Vegas, Young was bored when she returned to the Philadelphia area until a friend suggested that she take an art class.
Young had never drawn or painted until she took an art class at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts.
“Ever since I learned how to paint I wasn’t bored anymore, and I’ll never be bored for the rest of my life,” said Young.
Everything that she paints revolves around show business and includes “the lights and craziness from Vegas.”
Young describes her paintings as pop art. She uses bold colored acrylic paints and gel together to make the painting look more like a mosaic tile.
It took Young three weeks to paint “On Your Toes.” Since she began painting three years ago, Young estimates that she has painted about 100 canvases, most taking her between one to three weeks to complete.
“Her paintings are like something you’ve never seen,” said artist David Estey. “She’s an amazing person, doing amazing things’”
“Life has to be exciting for me,” said Young, who also golfs, jogs, plays tennis, and goes horseback riding. “I won’t be lying in bed saying, I’m sorry I didn’t live.”
Young hopes that her paintings make people smile and feel good.
“I think I paint with a sense of humor,” said Young.
Half of the money that Young receives from the sale of her paintings will go towards buying more paints and canvases. She’ll donate the other half to charities for the elderly and children.
“I like giving to children and older people,” said Young. “I think people should start being nicer to each other.”
The public is welcome to attend the opening reception, which will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on May 5.
©1996 Montgomery Media
Reprinted with permission
I met Harriet Young in early 1996 when she burst into the printmaking studio of the Cheltenham (PA) Center for the Arts to show guild leader and instructor Merle Spandorfer her latest paintings. I was astonished at the fantastic, outsider-art look of the work. I told her how much I liked them and helped her put them back into her hatchback. She tossed them in with careless abandon. After that, Harriet’s visits became a regular occurrence. Sometimes she brought a large box of Godiva chocolates from her “boyfriend,” saying, “They fell off the truck.”
I came to understand that she was a 66-year-old, former Las Vegas showgirl, who was into skydiving and had been abducted by space aliens when she was 13. She readily told the story of how her body had been probed and then brought back to earth. The more I saw of her paintings and large vases that she got at flea markets and compulsively painted with colorful decorative elements, the more convinced I was that she was a natural artist. Merle and I conspired to get her a solo show at the nearby Abington Club. I wrote and distributed the press release on the show and the Montgomery County Times Chronicle did an extensive feature on her. Harriet was thrilled. My wife, Karen, and I went to the opening, along with Merle and many others from the Center, and I have a few pictures from it.
Shortly after the opening, the Cheltenham Center had a call for its prestigious annual juried show. With some difficulty and at the last minute, I convinced Harriet to take the biggest piece off the wall at Abington and submit it to the juried show. She insisted she would never get in because she was “not a real artist.” I felt otherwise and told her so. The next day, I helped the jurist, John Ravenal, assistant curator of 20th-century art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by schlepping the paintings around while he judged them. When we broke for lunch, my piece and Harriet’s were still in. After lunch, he culled ten more paintings and mine was the last to go, but Harriet’s was still in. As a strange footnote, there was a jagged piece of sculpture standing precariously next to Harriet’s large painting. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the sculpture falling toward her painting, but I was too late getting there to prevent about a 4” gash in her painting. Merle had to tell her what happened, but we patched it from the back and Harriet touched it up.
At that same time, I was in the 3rd Street Gallery in old city Philadelphia and convinced the owner of a new cutting-edge gallery nearby (I don’t remember the name now) to meet with Harriet to discuss a solo show. I drove her down and she regaled me with tales of Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack, Liberace and others she purportedly knew in Vegas. She said Sinatra was always very nice to her. She spoke of her estrangement with her eldest son, Jack, and of a younger son who was institutionalized. She was a fascinating conversationalist and possibly a compulsive fibber. We met with the gallery owner and he agreed to give her a solo show.
The Sunday before the juried show opened at Abington, I was reworking my rejected painting, “Spiritual Encounter,” for submission to another prestigious show at the Wayne (PA) Art Center, juried by PAFA’s Sidney Goodman. I decided that my piece needed to be mounted on black cloth and I was in the process when I got the call from Merle. Harriet had died. It was Mothers’ Day. The show opened on the following Friday and was dedicated to Harriet’s memory.
My piece was juried into the Wayne show and it was the last one in dark tones that I did for some time. A few days later, my palette opened up to very bright colors, which my wife claimed was Harriet’s doing. A few years later, after we moved to North Carolina, the husband of my wife’s coworker, upon seeing “Spiritual Encounter,” suddenly whipped out a hand-written poem, gave it to me and said it was all about my painting. Indeed, it truly seemed so.
I went to Harriet’s funeral and met Jack and his wife. Incredibly, not long after that, he too was found dead. Aside from the few pictures of Harriet’s opening, we have one of her paintings with a space motif and two large vases that she decorated.
I didn’t know Harriet long or well, but she was a memorable character and a remarkable, natural artist. I’m glad we still have some of her work.
©2015 David Estey