Kreg Yingst is an artist, originally from Chicago, but now living in the warmer climes of Pensacola in Florida. He specializes in unusual and rather fabulous portraits of musicians, mostly from the blues, but also from jazz, rock and country. On the wall facing my desk, I have a wonderful wood-based print of Rev. Robert Wilkins, complete with some lyrics from his famous Prodigal Son song.
In his catalogue, blues fans will find work representing Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon…the list goes on. They are all superb and every blues fan ought to have one of Kreg’s pieces on display.
With art degrees from the Trinity University,Texas, and Eastern Illinois University, Kreg was originally a painter, but has come to specialize in printing carved wooden blocks. He describes himself as a narrative artist, where the story of the person he is dealing with becomes represented in the finished art-piece. Along the way, Kreg ruminates at length on the story, and then produces a sketch which gets transferred to a block of wood or linoleum, which he then will carve, before ink-printing.
As well as his music range of art, Kreg also has a body of work which focuses on sacred themes, ranging from illustrations of the Psalms to Celtic saints to the Passion of Christ. During the pandemic, when he could not exhibit as usual in the art festivals and fairs where he normally sells his work, he was surprised to find that, when his online sales spiked, it was the sacred art that was being sought.
His hand-coloured woodcuts of the parables illustrate Kreg’s concern that faith be grounded in real life. So, in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, an African-American man rescues a Ku Klux Klansman, while in his Lazarus and the Rich Man, a beggar grabs for the cigarette butts tossed by a limo rider.
In similar vein, Kreg has published a book called Glory among the Ruins: The Homeless Project, a portfolio of 15-linocut portraits of homeless men, a portion of the proceeds of which go toward feeding programs in the Florida panhandle. He says, “I joined a group of like-minded men and women from various churches to provide food, clothing, and spiritual nourishment for the homeless of our city. Over time, as I heard their stories, I began to know them individually, and not just as a people group. They had names and faces, hopes and dreams, and a past that would play into the situation they currently found themselves in.”
Kreg is soon to publish a new book entitled Black Light. I’m honoured to have been asked to write a forward, and I’ve seen an early copy of it. I can tell you that it is a stunning piece of work. It’s 28 portraits of black gospel blues artists, with a Kreg Yingst image of the each one along with a short introduction/reflection on each. The book celebrates Black History Month, which occurs in February in the US and Canada, hence the 28 portraits.
I got the opportunity to talk to Kreg and ask him about his work and the new book.
First off, I had to ask him about his name – there aren’t a lot of Kregs or Yingsts in my part of the world, nor, I’m guessing in North America. Kreg told me it came from his German ancestors who came to America in the 1700s and got a bit changed along the way from Juenst to Yingst. That settled, we talked about Kreg’s approach to his art.
“Well, I’ve been working with printmaking probably since the mid-1990s. I was always somewhat interested in narrative or storytelling arts and so I connected initially with the magic realists. I just loved their work from the 1940s, 50s, in America – people like George Tooker and Paul Cadmus. I liked the quirkiness about it. It felt inquisitive, there was something very magical to the work.
“In terms of the narrative aspect of my work, I’d go to libraries and fiddle through different books and try to find artists. And I came across two artists who were working with wood cuts at the time, Lynd Ward, an American, and Frans Masereel from Belgium. They had done what were called wood cut novels. You could read these visually no matter where you lived in the world. And I found that really fascinating. The graphics really appealed to me. And so I started moving into doing wood cuts and lino cuts and relief prints.
“Now the musicians, the subject matter – I think part of that was I had struggled with creating people in my art, so I started doing figurative art just because it was more of a challenge. I used to do more cityscapes and I was very good at it, but I felt it was somewhat of a dead end. So I started doing people, which I wasn’t very good at. To be honest, I still struggle with it!
“At some point I might like to get back to my painting, but at this time I enjoy the printmaking for a number of reasons. It’s more affordable art – that appeals to me. I’ve always liked, say, the Mexican socialist artists for making art so accessible for people. I don’t like painting that is only for the ultra-rich or museums. I like this aspect of art in our daily life.”
And what, I asked him, about the music aspect of his art?
“I remember the first piece I did was a Robert Johnson piece and it was just because the story appealed to me, the myth, the legend. So I did it and I thought it worked well. It was on aged paper, it had particles of the bark or the plant still in it, and to me, it seemed like a tobacco paper and it just represented Johnson’s time. I did it very scratchy with my cutting and I liked the outcome. I then started digging into the blues guys – not that I knew many of these people. So, my art became more of a journey into people I didn’t know, areas I don’t know. And something from it evolved into a work of art on my part.”
Kreg has a wonderful gallery of art covering blues artists, but he also has covered jazz, rock and country artists as well.
“The rock came a little bit later and doing that allowed me to bring in colour. And again, I was trying to represent the time period. On a technical level, it was more difficult because now you’re using multiple blocks, you’re using multiple colors. I also dabbled a little bit with jazz but with jazz, I started doing backgrounds with multiple blocks that I would piece together in different ways and I’d use different colors. And then I would bring the face as the last block on top. So, in a sense, I was able to improvise. I was trying to do visually what I was hearing audibly. So, you got the scratchy blues, you got the high key powered colors of rock and you got the improvisation of jazz.”
All of Kreg’s art has a spiritual element to it, sometimes explicitly, often just in the way that he creates, as an artist. But as well as the extensive music-related catalogue, he has a range of specifically sacred art.
“There’s a spiritual line that runs throughout the entire body of my work and I’m looking for that same element, I guess, that John Coltrane would’ve talked about with the audio.
“I’m looking for that with the visual, but that’s, I guess, part of my faith and my faith journey that has been embedded in my work. I did a whole series on the parables quite a while back. At the time I was looking at the German expressionists and they were very loose, and I tried to translate the parables to a modern-day context.
“And then eventually I went to do the Psalms in the same manner, but the Psalms were not narrative, so that proved difficult. And to be honest, I thought I was gonna knock out this project in about a year. But it transitioned into more of my own spiritual journey, where I was reading the desert fathers and a lot of monastic literature.
“And I started to incorporate these visual blocks into my own prayer life. Where I would read through a Psalm and I would take something with me, maybe just a sentence. That’s the sort of thing the desert fathers would do, they’d sit around, they’d listen to the speaker, they would take this line and then they would kind of ruminate on it throughout the day. That’s what I would do. And then I’d find the visual within that. And that whole project took me eight years. So, it became kind of my daily practice, taking the Psalm, embedding it, saying it, speaking it, and then doing it visually.
“And then I did another thing too, after the school shooting at Sandy hook, which kind of devastated me. I had young children at the time and I couldn’t understand how these people could live with that. It happened in December, and I decided the following year that I was going to find a prayer and I was going carve one piece per week until that whole year had gone. My output then became an opportunity to change this darkness into light for me. In my work, you start with a black block, basically, and every mark you make, you’re making white into the block. You’re literally carving light out of darkness. If this evil’s gonna happen, I wanted to have something good come out of it.
“And I like the idea that these prayers that are carved, they continue on in life, in somebody else’s reading. And then I started using these books I’d produced of my work as fundraisers so the profits would go to an orphanage. To support the children that don’t have parents, that did survive somewhere in the world. So, I didn’t want the darkness to win out in this. Like some light’s gonna come out of this.”
As Kreg talked about his approach to his art, it made me think of iconography, the icons that have been done in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where the painting of those is a spiritual exercise in and of itself.
“The icons are very interesting. I’ve recently finished a series on Mary, in conjunction with a book that’s coming out by an American author who now lives in Ireland, Christine Valters Paintner. Whereas with the Psalms, I was taking a word, this project, with the Mary series, I was taking an image – I would take the image through the day and see then how that was going to be interpreted through my concept of what was going on.
“But I have a couple of icons of my own and it’s a calming thing. I like the idea of it – it isn’t really a cognitive thing. We take in art, we take in music, we take in smells, our senses, directly. And so it is with our experience of God or our communication with God. By doing art this way, you’re making a deliberate act and saying, use this time, and this time is going to be with God. And this is going to be prayer.”
As I look through Kreg’s catalogue of art, it seems to me to have a potentially wide appeal. What sort of people, I asked Kreg, buy his art?
“A real mix. It’s kind of fun to be in the booth selling because you have this interaction with the people that are actually buying. It may be people covered with tattoos that love it for the black and white graphics. Or maybe a little grandmother buying one of the icons – so you get a real mix. And sometimes people will unload on me. I’ve had people come in and buy a piece, say like my Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. And the person’s about to walk out the booth but they turn around and say, this means so much to me, my son just died last week. You get that kind thing.
“Sometimes it has a lot of meaning to them. I’ve seen people laugh. I’ve seen people cry. I’ve heard miracle stories.”
My ears pricked up at that – let’s hear about the miracle stories, Kreg!
“I was doing a show in Texas and one person was buying a piece based on Here Comes the Sun, you know, the George Harrison song. And she goes, ‘Oh, I gotta tell you about this. This piece means so much to me.’ She said her son had been diagnosed with a rare disease and she was supposed to meet with the specialist after the weekend. She’d gone home and was really distraught and she’s praying, just pleading with God. It looked like her son had been given a death sentence basically.
“Monday, she gets in her car ready to leave. And she goes, ‘God, if this is gonna work out well, let Here Comes the Sun come on the radio’! So, she turned on the radio and after a moment of dead air time, the first notes of George’s guitar come in. So, she got to the hospital specialist, and he says, ‘I don’t understand this, we’ve taken the test again, and it’s has come back negative.’ And the doctor said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And she’s like, ‘I do now!’
“Another lady on that same weekend came in and she’s got two of my Psalm prints in her hands and doesn’t know which one to take. So, I said, get the one which speaks to you more. She asked me if I believed in God and I said yes, I do. She told me, ‘You know, I used to. But my brother got sick and I prayed and prayed but he died.’ I replied, ‘Listen, I don’t have the answers, I don’t know why this happens, but I do know God loves him. And he loves you and he’s always there.
“On my iPad, I had all the psalms and I was going back through them and I was trying to find what prompted the image from the Psalm. I had something highlighted and it said something like, ‘I’ve never left you,’ that kind of thing. And I said to her, ‘I don’t know what this means, but I think maybe this is for you.’ And I turned the iPad round and she read the two highlighted lines, ‘I’ve always been there, I’m not gonna leave you’ whatever the Psalm had said. And she goes, ‘I think that’s for me.’ So, I found it very fascinating that, that weekend there were two diverse but related things. One was a miraculous healing, the other not, and yet both in their own individual way, there was a miraculous encounter with God.”
I was very interested to hear about Kreg’s new forthcoming book, Black Light, the one that celebrates Black History Month with the portraits of the gospel blues artists. What’s the story behind it?
“It kind of developed on the spur of the moment and it was my wife that suggested I do this project. I’d done a lot of black musicians and gospel blues is my real interest. So, I thought, I could do something to take us through black history month. So, I started going back through all the people that I’ve done and, sure enough, I had more than enough images. I like the concept of ‘black light.’ I’m living over here in the thick of it. It’s been some crazy times, these last couple of years over here.
“So, I want to get out the history and what this group of people came through and what their faith did and supported them to get through this. And is still having to get through. And I’ve seen how, even as artists or whatever, people misunderstand black and white. I do graphics of black and white, and we’ve always associated black with evil and white with goodness. I want people to know this is incorrect. So that’s why I call it black light. It’s light, but it’s coming from blackness.
“I like the gospel blues. It’s deals with hard times. It deals with reality. It’s the good and the bad, it’s, you know, on the one hand, why is this happening to me, but on the other, praise God for that. I like how it kind of merges these two things. I mean, your book touches on all of that. [here Kreg refers to my The Gospel According to the Blues.]
“So, you get the highs and you get the lows, whereas sometimes, gospel music is just one extreme and full out blues might go to the other. But the gospel blues deals with both of these issues. And that always intrigues me. Most of the people in the book are gospel blues artists who are fairly obscure to most people, but I’ve also included some people like Marvin Gay and Aretha Franklin who are more well known.”
Take it from me – the book is quite wonderful, and you’re going to want to get yourself a copy. It’ll be printed quite lavishly on heavier, coated paper and will be around 8” by 6”. It’ll be a book you’ll be proud to have in your home, and Kreg tells me it will be available from Juneteenth this year – that is June 19th – and you can order it from his website. Proceeds from the book will go to orphanages that Kreg knows.
While you’re waiting for Juneteenth to come around, head over to Kreg’s site and browse through his catalogue of wonderful and remarkable art. But don’t just browse – find a piece that speaks to you and buy a copy.
Check out Kreg’s gallery at http://www.kregyingst.com/