OWATONNA — When artist Annie Young stepped back to reveal a multilayered depiction of the American flag to fellow veteran David Brown, she said she could tell by the way he was breathing that she had done justice to his story.
Young, who lost her sight as an adult, painted the piece after a three-hour conversation with Brown. During their meeting, the two connected over their shared service as he recounted four years as a Marine stationed in Iraq and Somalia. The resulting work, entitled “Got Your Six,” will be on display as part of Young’s upcoming show at the Owatonna Arts Center. The exhibition, which opens this Sunday, is entitled “A Veteran’s Affair” and includes paintings inspired by a number of individual veterans’ stories.
Young has been painting professionally since 2008. Although she’s been active in the art world for over a decade, she noted that this body of work was especially challenging for her.
“There’s a great deal of trust. It’s very humbling,” she explained. “A person has just told their story to you and they walk away and you’re standing there like, ‘How can I honor this?’”
With Brown’s story, the resulting piece was a nuanced depiction of the American flag, hung vertically and with the blue field of stars painted almost as a sea of waves. The flag is a symbol that Young has worked with a lot through the years, and each representation varies greatly in terms of size, style and the way in which the paint is applied. One is even painted across three separate canvases, which are then hung next to each other.
Young explained that each one is done in the style of the story it’s depicting. With Brown, a lot of the conversation revolved around his homecoming and readjustment to civilian life.
“I struggled until about 2009 with telling anybody about any of my service time,” said Brown, who served in the early 1990s. “The only things I discussed were the years that I served and that I was in the infantry.”
Brown said one of the main reasons he used to be more reluctant to discuss his story was that he wasn’t as active in his faith. “I wasn’t going to church, I wasn’t reading the Bible and I felt shame for some of those things that I endured and was a part of.”
After reconnecting with Christianity, Brown said he opened up more about the details of his time in the military — eventually leading to his conversation with Young, and her painting that will now be used on the cover of his upcoming book, “Born to Survive.”
“The piece is a symbol of my service time and how messy it was. Through it all, there was the patriotism and my perseverance and God watching over me — those pieces are all in there,” he explained. “There’s an outline of a fish symbol going through the stripes of the red and white. That’s an outline of the tattoo I have on my forearm for the symbol of Christianity.”
Brown noted that because of Young’s layering, the fish symbols alternated between prominent and faint as they made their way through the stripes. He compared the visual to the waxing and waning of his own faith since returning from overseas.
Silvan Durben, creative director of the Owatonna Arts Center, also singled out Young’s layering process as one of his favorite parts of her work.
“She has meticulously figured out how to apply paint and then go back to add additional paint after it dries,” he said.
Durben also noted that, while many of Young’s pieces reflect an individual story, some of her paintings also depict bigger moments in military history.
“She’s told the story of Flanders Fields, where [after World War I] a vet was flying over this area that was just totally ravaged by war and saw red poppies coming up,” Durben explained. “There are a lot of moving stories.”
Young will also, on occasion, share snippets of her own life through her work. She painted another depiction of a flag, entitled “Occupation of a Mother’s Heart,” after hearing her youngest son was returning for another tour in Iraq.
“He had just gotten back after serving one tour, and his wife was pregnant with their first child,” she explained. “I literally grabbed a painting off the wall and went into my studio and started throwing paint around.”
While she described her feeling in that moment as frustration, Young also noted, “I am very proud of serving our country and I love the American flag. The reason the flag is painted in different ways is because it’s telling different stories.”
Owatonna residents will be able to see Young’s paintings and learn more about the history behind them when “A Veteran’s Affair” opens this Sunday, Nov. 3. The show will run through Nov. 24, and both Young and Brown will be in town for a reception next Sunday, Nov. 10, from 1 to 4 p.m.
For more information on Young’s work, and for descriptions of the pieces that will be on view in Owatonna, visit her website at www.annieyoungarts.com.
The Owatonna Arts Center galleries are open from 1 to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. The building is located at 435 Garden View Lane. For more information, visit www.oacarts.org.