Jim Youngerman's collaborative spirit on full display this summer

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Set designing offers a creative outlet for artist Jim Youngerman's collaborative spirit.

"There are so many talented people, and the opportunity to work with and see other people's process is my treat," he said recently.

Yet, when Youngerman works on sets, such as the rustic "As You Like It" staging that presides at Shakespeare & Company's Roman Garden Theatre through Sept. 2, he isn't escaping a solitary artistic existence. Several pieces currently on display at Lauren Clark Fine Art in Great Barrington through Sept. 2 demonstrate that the Stockbridge resident often incorporates other creative minds into his visual art as well. But set design is more of a social endeavor for Youngerman.

"Most of the time, I'm in my studio, alone with myself, and here's the opportunity to work with people and get their ideas. ... I love the need for flexibility," he said.

For "As You Like It," Youngerman began brainstorming concepts for the outdoor set in February with Shakespeare & Company Artistic Director Allyn Burrows, who would be directing the romantic comedy.

"My job is to serve the vision of the director, and that's laid out clearly," Youngerman said of his set designer role.

Youngerman and Burrows had teamed up to launch the Roman Garden's first play, "The Tempest," the previous summer.

"Jim helped me build it from the ground up and make it really workable. I was really appreciative," Burrows said.

While "The Tempest" demands an island setting, "As You Like It" requires portraying a court and the Forest of Arden. Some natural scenery and St. Martin's Hall, an art deco building behind part of the Roman Garden stage, presented a challenge to this balancing act.

"How do you create both of those [the court and the forest] in the space with this looming white elephant of a building encompassing two sides of the space and two huge [separated] pine trees?" Youngerman said of the dilemma.

The set designer saw an opportunity, though. The building could represent the court; Burrows had decided to set the play in the Roaring Twenties, a time when Art Deco was starting to take hold. Youngerman added some deco elements above the windows to amplify this relationship.

Meanwhile, audience members could bridge the distance between the pines. Instead of arranging rows in a rectangular formation around the stage as he had for "The Tempest," which would have made the trees after thoughts, Youngerman connected them by creating a parallelogram of seating.

"The audience is sort of part of these big pine trees," he said.

But two trees don't make a forest. Youngerman and Burrows knew they needed more.

"They had to be the right trees because the Forest of Arden is this kind of uplifting, hopeful place. But also, darkness could exist, and there was danger there. They couldn't be gnarly trees," Youngerman said.

Ultimately, more than a handful of white birches from a Becket friend's property were planted onstage. In April, Burrows and Youngerman chopped the 25-foot saplings down from an area that needed thinning, they both said separately, and transported them to Lenox. They trimmed the birches' heights and dug 30-inch holes in the stage, which now consists of a clay-and-sand mixture covered in mulch to mimic a forest floor. As a set designer, Youngerman was concerned about how the surface would respond to rain and other elements.

"The thing that keeps you up at night, what if the dirt turns to mud? What if the mulch bleeds onto all the costumes?" Youngerman said, noting that they did test the mulch to ensure that it wouldn't do any damage to clothing.

Youngerman has had ample experience designing sets outside. He started working with Shakespeare & Company in the mid-1990s, when the company made its home at The Mount. Burrows was an actor in the Lenox troupe back then and recalls chatting with Youngerman during rehearsal breaks. He appreciated that Youngerman didn't come from a theatrical background. Youngerman designed his first set for a 1981 production of "The Man Who Killed the Buddha" in Los Angeles, landing the gig after selling a painting to actor Darrell Larson. His lens is different than a schooled set designer's.

"He's a great guy to have blue-sky conversations with," Burrows said of Youngerman.

Poet David Keplinger has had a few of those with the artist. In recent times, they have collaborated on a series of 13 works that mix imagery and poetry; two of them currently reside in corners of Lauren Clark. "The Women Played Birds" (2016), for example, is a gicl e print that features the outlines of female violinists with birds soaring overhead. Between them, a poem crawls down the page.

"Instead of notes the women played birds of varied sizes," it begins.

The verse isn't necessarily Keplinger's.

"I would rewrite his poetry," Youngerman said during a recent tour of his show, "New Work: Strange & Alluring."

And the visuals aren't necessarily derived from Youngerman's mind. The birds weren't in one of the initial images that Youngerman sent to Keplinger.

"In his mind's eye," Youngerman said of Keplinger, "he saw birds, and he came back and looked at the picture, and said, 'Ah, s---, there are no birds.' So, he wrote me this sweet email. And I said, 'I'll add birds.'"

This type of back-and-forth was common throughout the creative process.

"Neither one of us had any attachment to our work, and that produced a sum greater than its parts," he said.

Keplinger, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., had worked with artists of other forms before the series but never a visual artist. Youngerman strikes him as atypical.

"Jim is the unique example of an artist who works both by inspiration and diligence. He's been doing this for over 40 years and is always surprising himself and always trying to reach out to other artists," Keplinger said when reached by phone on Wednesday.

Youngerman had described his process somewhat differently while standing near some works at Lauren Clark.

"I sort of don't believe in inspiration. I believe in work, and after you create a body of work, you see where the good pieces are and where you fall off a bit. I never have a preconceived idea of what any of these are going to look like," said Youngerman, who studied art at American University before dropping out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. ("I was in so many revolutions I owned a gas mask," Youngerman said.)

According to Youngerman, an E.L. Doctorow quotation best describes his process.

"He said writing a novel is like driving a car at night: You can only go as far as the headlights illuminate, but you can make the whole trip that way," Youngerman recalled.

Light and time mingle in the shadows found in the larger watercolor, ink and pencil-on-paper pieces hanging in the gallery's center.

"I did a painting in about '94, where it suddenly dawned on me that the text is the shadows, and the subtext is the object that casts them," he said.

An untitled ink-and-graphite triptych panorama from 2018 looms near these shadowy works. Across the three panels, a man's figure descends on a bleak landscape. As they view the piece, gallerygoers can use provided headphones to listen to a Johnny Irion instrumental track that was made to accompany the work. The Washington folk-rocker had long been insisting that he wanted to create music inspired by Youngerman's visual art.

"I was like, 'You what?'" Youngerman recalled.

Ever open-minded, Youngerman eventually agreed to the arrangement, but he didn't give Irion any guidance.

"There are no words that I could conceive of that would work with this piece, and I didn't tell him that," he said.

But Irion created a song without words, anyway, and another successful Youngerman collaboration had been realized.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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