Artist’s installation exhibition at Sweet Briar is meant to stir the senses, provoke empathy

Posted on October 13, 2016 by Jennifer McManamay

The artist works on an installation in her studio at Swift Run Farm. Albemarle County artist Millicent Young works on an installation in her studio at Swift Run Farm. Photo by Michael Bailey.

“Forms for a New Mythology,” an exhibition by Virginia artist Millicent Young, opens in Sweet Briar’s Babcock Gallery with an artist reception from 5:15 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20. The event is free and open the public.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is “Luminous Room,” a 10-by-7-by-7-foot installation of horsehair, thread and cable. Wall-mounted sculptures of materials such as horsehair and nails; plaster, steel and mixed media; and washi paper, ink, pastel, steel and glass complement the installation — which is suspended in the room’s center.

“Horsehair is a material that really speaks to me,” Young says. “It’s luminous and fine, it moves, it’s alive, it refracts light. And all of these things are both symbol and substance. It also has memory, it is DNA, and it’s mysterious.”

She stumbled on it by accident, she said, searching her Swift Run Studio in northern Albemarle County for something to complete a wood piece she was working on.

“I needed something to use like string. I started experimenting with it and over time, it revealed itself as kind of primary rather than ancillary material.”

That was around 2007. Horsehair has the qualities that define what she means by a “new mythology.” For Young, creating forms — art — is about reconnecting to that which makes us, well, us. She seeks an alternative to “our failed Cartesian paradigm of separation from each other and earth.”

mbailey-160704-204_wvjnlgc0z1 “Luminous Room,” 2016; 10 x 7 x 7 feet; horsehair, thread and cable. Photo by Michael Bailey.

This paradigm, she says, “is wiping out the precise foundations on which life — not just culture — depends.”

“Empathy is an organ of our being nourished by our senses,” she explains. “And so the rupture of our connection to the sensual, to beauty and mystery, renders us senseless and therefore brutal. To smell the sun on our skin connects us, changes us.”

Her response as an artist?

“Beauty, living by the senses and living in an empathic way — that’s the foundation of my work,” Young says.

Young opened her studio in 1998, not long after earning her M.F.A. at James Madison University on a teaching fellowship. Soon, in 1999, came a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Professional Fellowship, the VMFA’s top award. Another followed in 2014.

All of the works in the Sweet Briar exhibition were completed this year, except one 2015 piece. For Babcock shows, galleries director Karol Lawson looks for professional artists in the region who are producing fresh work.

“The idea is to share high-quality, thought-provoking material with our students and faculty that they may not routinely get a chance to see,” Lawson says.

“Young’s work, for me, combines an ethereal sensibility and industrial materials in a really compelling way,” Lawson says. “It’s poetic and also strong. A little odd, in a good way.”

Young fits the bill in another way, too. Lawson says she tries to bring in artists whose work resonates with what the studio art professors are teaching.

“So the Andrea Eis show is a nod to Medford Taylor’s photography class. Millicent Young’s show complements John Morgan’s assemblage class and also helps to supplement what the department can offer in the way of 3D design.”

More information about Young and her art is available at

Babcock Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The gallery closes when the College is not in session; it is recommended that visitors call ahead to confirm hours. For more information, contact Karol Lawson at (434) 381-6248 or