Janel Young is a Pittsburgh native, painter, muralist and community leader on a mission to inspire through creativity and play.
Her work has been recognized locally and internationally, from New York City – where she resided for 6 years – to the coast of Sydney, Australia. Prior to pursuing art full-time, Janel attended Schenley High School as an International Baccalaureate student athlete, and went on to study Business Marketing and International Studies at Penn State University as a Bunton-Waller Fellow. She relocated to NYC in 2013 to work in public relations as a Digital Content Strategist for industries, including healthcare, tech and non-profits for 5 years.
A year after taking the leap to practice art full-time in NYC, Janel’s passions came full circle in 2019 as her love for visual arts brought her back to Beltzhoover (her childhood neighborhood) to install her largest led mural to date — the city’s first art basketball court, cleverly coined: The Home Court Advantage Project. The City of Pittsburgh awarded Janel a proclamation for her community-centered effort to wrap the city in color, making October 23, 2019 “JANEL YOUNG DAY” in the City of Pittsburgh.
Now serving as the Community Artist in Residence at UrbanKind Institute in Pittsburgh, Janel utilizes visual arts as a communication tool to connect people to equity and justice values and initiatives. She continues to use both Pittsburgh and New York networks for public art projects, youth workshops and speaking opportunities.
We got a chance to chop it up with Janel about her most recent successes and the journey she took to get there. She proves that taking a leap of faith to pursue your passion can take you beyond what you could ever imagine.
Q: How old were you when you first discovered that you could draw? And what was it that you drew?
JANEL: I would actually say I was too young to remember. It was the adults and teachers in my life who discovered I could draw and color really well, probably around 4 years old. I realized I was good at it around 4th grade. I drew a lot of still life of objects you find at home: water bottles, shoes, fruit. I eventually started to draw 3-D shapes from imagination vs. drawing items in front of me. I still love the geometric aspect of art, so it stuck with me.
Q: How did you feel when you made that leap of faith to pursue art full time? And what was your biggest challenge in the first year?
JANEL: I was very relieved to have left my corporate agency job and I felt very free, liberated. I felt a certain type of peace that meant I knew I made the right decision. Surprisingly, the first year was almost a breeze! The biggest challenge was deciding how serious I was going to get and where to plant myself - continuing to stay in NYC or to move somewhere else.
Q: What sports did you play? And what were some life lessons that you took from it?
JANEL: Growing up I played almost every sport, but by the time I got to high school I was known for being captain of the basketball and volleyball teams, with track and field on the side for conditioning. I took so many lessons from sports, but here are my top 5:
- Hard work (a common theme): no matter if you’re the team superstar or on the practice squad, you work hard for your team. Otherwise, you end up cheating yourself.
- Discipline: it’s truly the difference between you and your competition.
- Know your role and your strengths: nailing down what you’re good at, even if it’s not the most celebrated part of the game. For example, I always considered myself a great defensive player in every sport. On our basketball team, we already had great scorers. We didn’t need another scoring superstar, so I focused on playing excellent, fundamentally-sound defense, locking down the other teams’ best player. Will people remember that? Maybe not. Was it what my team needed? Absolutely.
- The real work is done behind closed doors: the things that make you level up are things done when no one is watching. It’s at practice, it’s when you make mistakes until you get it right, it’s at home in your backyard, it’s studying film. What happens during gametime is just the fruition of all the unseen moments of sweat and frustration.
- Pushing your limits is the way to grow: you will be surprised at what you are capable of if you push past your comfort zone. It’s the only way to get better!
Q: You are a Pittsburgh LEGEND, ok! You have a WHOLE day dedicated to you! Besides notoriety, what else do you believe comes with that?
JANEL: It’s still surreal to me! But it comes with a responsibility to continue using my gifts to uplift people, especially youth. It’s also a reminder to always dream big - there is no dream too big for God. When it comes to projects and impacting communities, I have had opportunities that I could not have even thought to pray for!
Q: When you visited the memorial park in Ghana in January, it inspired you to think about leaving an impact. Shortly after that, the structure of the World changed. How have you pivoted to adjust to what is “the new normal” and what are some advantages?
JANEL: The great thing about having an online presence and physical products is that you can still make an impact on different levels. I’ve been able to partner with different organizations in Pittsburgh, NYC and Detroit to host physically distant or virtual events during the pandemic.
The biggest advantage so far is people and corporations are finally recognizing the power of art when people are grieving, inspired, desperately needing to connect to one another. It has opened up new doors for me to do projects that otherwise would not exist, like the Black Lives to the Front Art Exhibition at the U.S. Open, the New Space Spheres Project with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, or the Exploring COVID Impacts virtual art gallery grant for my piece “Avalanche.”
Q: Please tell us about an experience when God had to intervene, and you know it was God because of ______________.
JANEL: Let me tell you, this happens OFTEN. But one relevant experience was in the spring of 2019 when I was a year into my full-time art entrepreneurship journey and I was trying to make a decision for my next step: stay in NYC (which may require to get a second job, because...rent) or move somewhere more affordable with more family and resources at my disposal.
I had a difficult time because there were a lot of moving pieces and I was used to “grind mode” and non-stop “productivity.” I put a lot of feelers out to see if anything would stick -- applied to jobs I was qualified (and over-qualified) for; I thought maybe I needed to prove my humility. I applied to graduate school for a Masters of Fine Arts program; maybe I was supposed to go back to school to level up? I looked into cost of living in other cities and their art scenes. I realized I needed to take some time to just be still and listen to what God was trying to tell me to do.
I fasted and did devotionals and lots of praying so that I could hear Him more clearly and He told me to go home! Go home to Pittsburgh, a place I did not care to go to at the time. But I knew it was what I had to do. I called my mom and told her I was packing my bags and I needed her to come get me that same week. The very day I moved my belongings out of my apartment, I received rejection emails from a job I thought I had in the bag AND from the graduate program. I have never been so relieved to be rejected! I knew that it meant I made the right decision, that I was listening and obeying. I was at peace, finally!
It wasn’t until then that the following things fell into place:
- Spring 2019: I was commissioned by Bedlam Vodka to live paint at Dreamville Festival in Raleigh, NC
- Summer 2019: I got called back to NY to install 2 murals without having to pay for lodging
- Fall 2019: The funding for the art basketball court was confirmed and presented, with no cost to me
- Winter 2019/2020 I landed an art residency job in my neighborhood (with benefits, girl)
I know it was God because there is no way could I line up any of that on my own! The blessings were - and still are - pouring in. My current residency is truly a dream job, where I can make a difference just by being myself. When I tell you God will close all doors not meant for you? I mean it. He has something better planned, ALWAYS.
Q: You have a quote, “What does it look like to create from a place of joy? That’s the goal. And it’s rebellious.” First, thank you for the reminder. Second, how do you advise a black woman to reach joy, and be rebellious; especially in these times when it seems like everyone is against her?
JANEL: Everyone’s journey to joy is different and their own! I think the start of that journey is finding/knowing who she is for herself - not who other people tell her she is. Loving on yourself is something no person can ever take away from you! Black women should know that their pure existence is rebellious. Do and create from who you are at heart and all the goodness that comes with your light. There will forever be people against you. Nothing you do will change that fact, so the energy you are tempted to spend combatting the nay-sayers can be used to do things that bring you joy instead.
Q: You have displayed your incredible work all over the world and you are an avid solo traveller. What do you believe is the greatest benefit of expanding internationally, that could not be achieved inside of one’s native country?
JANEL: The greatest benefit is PERSPECTIVE. When you see how other cultures move, operate, interact with each other, you gain a different view of the world. The more you travel, the more emotional experiences you collect, too. You’ll see that there is more than one (right) way to do things, and I believe it makes you more empathetic and understanding as a human being. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with artists all over the world and sometimes art is the only common language.
Q: What is your favorite experience thus far?
JANEL: It’s hard to say! I usually go with my study abroad experience in Tokyo because I was immersed into the culture and lived with a host family, who I still keep in touch with. I lived there for 4 months in 2012 and had the time of my life.
More recently, I would say my solo trip to New Zealand. I spent a week exploring Queenstown in the dead of winter. It was beautiful and refreshing, plus I got my adventurous fix skydiving over mountains (my favorite scenery).
Q: You left corporate America to become a full time entrepreneur. How did being in the corporate world prepare you for your own journey?
JANEL: Corporate America gave me a sense of structure for my own business and how I wanted to run things (or not). It was a good baseline for standard procedures and the lingo used in the everyday business world. I learned big-picture knowledge, but also very simple things like invoicing, budgeting, press releases, pitching presentations, building decks, customer management skills, etc. that help tremendously with how I market myself. It’s especially helpful when working with other professionals and larger corporations.
It also gave me perspective on my work ethic and taught me to rest before burnout, which is a lot of the young entrepreneurial downfall. We are not supposed to be “team no sleep,” y’all. GET SOME REST.
Q: And what can someone in the corporate world, who has never been an entrepreneur, learn from that journey?
JANEL: First and foremost, respect the entrepreneur grind. It is not “easier” and sometimes not “better” than the corporate world, but there are perks depending on your values. Also, do not overstretch yourself for a company that does not value YOU.
On another note, people in corporate have a unique opportunity to bring in vendors or entrepreneurs to align them with their corporate resources, funds, audiences and platforms. Take advantage of that potential partnership so everyone can win!
Q: What do you believe is ultimately, your God given purpose? And if you ever find yourself getting off track, how do you navigate back?
JANEL: Some days I feel that my purpose is to uplift others through my art, whether that’s encouraging them through bright colors or giving them a voice for a heavy subject. Other days I think I am to be content with existing as the multi-faceted unicorn that He made me to be! I think both can be true. When I lose sight of that, I pray and meditate on it (heavy on the Bible App), even have prayer calls, rewatch old sermons on YouTube or have informal conversations with my close friends to remind me of my journey and impact. It’s important to use all your resources to help you recalibrate. The most important is talking directly with God and expressing gratitude.
Q: What is the best piece of advice that you can give a young artist who is starting out?
JANEL: KEEP GOING. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and you don’t always have to be good at those things! Always remember to make things YOU like and enjoy, not what you think other people want to see you make. Your art will not be for everyone.
THANK YOU SO MUCH JANEL FOR TAKING THE TIME TO ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS! AND GOD BLESS YOU ABUNDANTLY!