Sherry Young: A Life in Full Color

A painting hangs on a wall by Sherry and James Young’s small dining table. It’s a still life, with a loaf of sliced bread resting on a cutting board and green tablecloth, next to a flour-filled glass jar. This is the first piece Sherry made when she began taking painting classes in Iowa in the late 1960s. 

After watching painting shows on television and seeing beautiful pieces at fairs, she knew she needed to try it and took a class in the community. That was the beginning of a life’s passion. 

“I just fell in love with painting,” she said. 

In truth, their Butterfield Trail Village apartment serves as a gallery, showcasing various pieces Sherry has created over the years. In the living room, a painting of a city scene from their Venice trip is on one wall; paintings of a snow leopard and a tiger in water hang on another. The coffee table holds a collection of stained glass desert plants, while stained glass “spinners” hang in a window. 

The guest bathroom features a painting of her parents’ red barn in Oklahoma. The couple’s shared office features an Arkansas painting – a woodland waterfall. In the hallway is her take on a Picasso from his Blue Period. Their bedroom is filled with floral paintings – everlasting bouquets. She’s even painted rocks, letting the natural shape guide her to create a frog, cat or rabbit.

In her life, Sherry hasn’t shied away from trying new things or challenging herself. She has learned that 

it’s best to have the proper tools for whatever the task; it reduces frustration and increases the chance for success.

Her philosophy is: “If you mess up, you can either drop it or try it again until you get it the way you want it.”

Cultivating a Life Together

Sherry was born in Littlefield, Texas, and raised on a farm in the eastern New Mexico desert. She found beauty where others saw desolation. Cotton, broomcorn, peanuts and hay grew in their fields. She and her older brother learned early on about hard work, as they drove the tractor and worked with irrigation systems. “When you’re on a farm, it involves the whole family,” she said.

The family was active in church, and she rode the bus to school in Portales. She wanted to go to secretarial school and worked for an accountant her first job out of school, where she did bookkeeping and was introduced to income taxes. 

James and Sherry’s family farms almost connected. They were childhood sweethearts and married after high school. He then enrolled at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, while she worked as a secretary in the public school system. He’d thought about studying architecture, but the program was being phased out; he majored in civil engineering instead. Sherry attended the university for a bit, until their two children came along.

In 1964, the family moved to California, where James got his doctorate in civil engineering at Stanford University. Sherry worked in the finance department of an investment group in the foreclosure area. 

They left California for Iowa in 1968, for James’ first teaching job. The cold weather was an adjustment at first, and she spent most of their 15 years there raising their children and starting her painting journey. 

In 1982, they moved from Iowa to Northwest Arkansas. The family had traveled through Arkansas to visit her parents in Poteau, Oklahoma. They’d loved the area, the people, and weather that was warmer than Iowa, and they’d talked about moving here if the chance came along. Eventually, it did, when James was offered a position as head of the civil engineering department at the University of Arkansas. 

In Arkansas, Sherry got involved in real estate, working as an agent for nine years and then for a while in the brokerage department. She kept wanting to paint but didn’t have the space for it.

In 1991, they moved to Pennsylvania, where James was a chair of the environmental engineering group at Penn State. That’s when she decided that, if she was going to get serious about painting, she needed some real instruction. She had studied the Alexander Method and had watched the Bob Ross show, “The Joy of Painting,” for years on PBS.

So she went to the official Bob Ross school in Virginia, where she took weeklong classes over several years and became certified to teach those methods. During the training, each student painted their own piece for a while, then they traded with someone else so they could improve each other’s work.

Sherry likes the Bob Ross style, but she let some of it go due to the use of turpentine with the oil painting. “But I still use a lot of his teaching methods whenever I paint.”

When they returned to Arkansas in 1996, she taught classes in the Bob Ross method, but she wanted to learn more. So she went to a school in Tennessee for painting baby animals. Showing off paintings of a mouse, bunny and deer, she explained the need for using tiny brushes for the fur and small details. Her instructor said to paint everything else first, then add the eyes at the end to bring it to life. “They make you smile. That’s why I like these,” she said. 

Sherry also trained in Missouri to get certified in the Dorothy Dent method, which are mostly landscapes and country scenes. This is basically the style she’s painting and teaching now. 

“If you see something and you want to do it, you have to study how to do it, and learn from people who teach you each step along the way, just incorporating all of that,” she said.

Sharing a Passion for Painting 

Sherry and another BTV resident each teach painting classes using acrylics. In the art studio, Sherry sets up the easels for her students, and they follow along with her as she paints. In early lessons, they start with basic brush strokes and details such as leaves, flowers, trees and basket weave. She tells them not to grip the paintbrush near the bristles like a pencil, but rather to hold it further down the handle. Different brushes are needed for different effects, she’ll explain. She mixes most hues from eight paint colors on her palette.

Sherry also teaches stained glass, an art form she learned about from her son. After taking classes in the form and creating a few things on her own, she made some windows for Rolling Hills Baptist Church, where she and James attended.

The church leadership thought the building’s 24 clerestory windows would look nice with stained glass. Sherry ended up creating 18 of the 2-foot-square stained glass pieces in her home craft room. They depict images such as the miracle of the loaves and fishes; a nativity scene with three Black wise men; a hand signing “I love you” atop a red heart; a butterfly on a cross pattern; hands holding the planet Earth; and a robin.

During that time, Sherry and James made several mission trips to Haiti with local churches. They helped with the medical efforts and, one year, taught residents about beekeeping. The couple still fund the education for four children there. Sherry and fellow BTV resident Grace Donoho also taught a knitting class at the women’s detention center.

When the family lived in Pennsylvania, Sherry often went to museums and galleries in Washington, D.C., and sat for hours taking in and analyzing the artwork. Now, she enjoys visits to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and a hummingbird painting is among her favorites in their collection. She gets up close and tries to see the brushstrokes. “Some of those, I just can’t visualize how in the world they ever did that,” she said.

When teaching art classes, the biggest challenge is that people think they can’t learn to do something. Young said she’s still learning and that one’s only limits are one’s mindset. “You just never learn it all. Every time you do something new, even if you redo one, it’s still something new.” She’s considering pottery for her next artistic pursuit.


Enjoying Life at BTV 

The Youngs moved to BTV in November 2015, after hearing good things from friends who lived there. They downsized from a 4,000-square-foot home. They wanted to be on the ground floor and were able to take advantage of a very rare opportunity to combine two available smaller apartments together. James worked with the Butterfield move-in coordinator to redesign the new space from scratch, creating an open living-dining-kitchen area, a small craft room for Sherry, and two bedrooms – one of which serves as their office.

Sherry enjoys baking cinnamon rolls and scones, and will try any recipe. She also likes to cook Mexican food, such as tacos and enchiladas. James grows peppers in the community garden, and then roasts and freezes them for later.

She and James often walk on the Razorback Greenway trail, which passes near their home. They sometimes go out to eat at their favorite spots: Dickey’s or Penguin Ed’s barbecue, Acambaro or Mama Tang.

Their son, Alan, lives in Ames, Iowa, where he does IT for the police department. Their daughter, Renita, lives in Bella Vista and is a nurse at Mercy. Sometimes, Renita brings the grandchildren to visit, and they cook a meal and play games. 

Sherry enjoys listening to classic country and Southern gospel and is partial to the fiddle. She still does some bookkeeping for a company she and her husband own, where they make and sell equipment for wastewater testing.

“I can’t just sit and do nothing. I’ve got to have something going on all the time.”