“If you can’t step up to the plate and celebrate life,” Stuart Yankell CGS’85 GFA’88 is saying, “then you might as well put down the bat.”
He’s standing in his studio in the leafy Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, surrounded by his own bold, vigorous oil paintings, which celebrate what he calls the “life force and common fabric underlying humanity and existence.”
That life force pours in through several channels. Yankell and his wife MaryEllen are serious students of Asian martial and health arts: kendo, tai chi, acupuncture. A more Western-style celebration is evident in the bold colors and subject matter, which ranges from flamenco dance to live jazz to urban café nightscapes.
Yankell brought his easel into the city after years of painting rural and suburban landscapes, and the move has paid off. “The figures that I placed in the pictures slowly began to take over the images, and I realized that it was the people and the figures themselves that began to dominate the work,” he recalls. “That’s evolved into the core of the work—this fabric of humanity where you have these gatherings of figures that almost interweave. They really speak to the notion of interconnection, of how everything in the world is really just one larger part of the universal fabric.”
Yankell infuses his urban scenes, most of which are set in Philadelphia, with a bold sense of color. “A lot of people see my work and say, ‘Oh, is this Argentina or New Orleans?’” he says. “And I’ll say, ‘It’s Philadelphia.’ And they all say, ‘I thought Philadelphia was gray.’” He laughs. “As an artist, you try to see things a different way.”
His outlook also represents an “attempt to fuse the old and the new schools of painting —that whole classical tradition that I was steeped in with modern ideas,” he notes. “Like any tradition, when it taps into the whole chain of relevant conventions, over time it just gathers speed and power and has that ability to really evolve.”
Actually, Yankell had a good deal of exposure to modern, experimental styles when he was young, through the influence of his father, Dr. Samuel Yankell DH’81, research professor of periodontics, who moonlights as an artist himself. Later, at Penn and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the younger Yankell was exposed to the “whole realm of the history of art.”
Yankell has also kept up a serious portraiture business. Among his recent portraits is one of Dr. Raymond Fonseca, who recently stepped down as dean of the School of Dental Medicine, and whom Yankell clearly admires as a person. “Portraiture is an extremely deep and powerful tradition that brings people to a significant layer of truth—something that you don’t necessarily have access to,” he says. “It’s certainly something that’s always been a real meaningful aspect of the whole painting language for me.”
Like most successful artists, Yankell has had to become adept at the business side of his profession, which doesn’t get a lot of attention in art school. He’s had some big breaks—including the time when the Larson-Juhl custom-frame company decided to feature his work in an advertisement that has appeared in more than 100 magazines, including Architectural Digest, Metropolitan Homes, and Gourmet.
“Craig Ponzio [Larson-Juhl’s owner and chief designer] had bought a number of my paintings at a show in New York some years back,” recalls Yankell, “and he casually turned to me and asked if I had any interest in having my work seen by 20 million people. I still get calls almost weekly from people who have seen the ad around the country or the world.”
Yankell’s CV carries a lengthy list of exhibitions, grants, awards, and museum collections, and his work hangs in the private collections of a number of prominent musicians, including Carlos Santana, Branford Marsalis, and India Arie. But he tries not to get too wrapped up in individual accolades.
In the life of an artist, “there’s only these very brief windows where everything you’re doing seems utterly right and worthwhile,” he says. “There are times when the whole tradition of painting that I’ve invested my life in reveals these windows of beauty and truth. To me, those are more important than any particular accolades and exhibits. Simply the ability to support my family and to live a wholesome life is, to me, more of a high point. As an artist, that’s no small achievement. And I’m grateful for that every day.”