The inspiration behind Sheila Youngblood’s wildly colorful central Austin home started when she was an adventurous five-year-old growing up in West Houston next door to her grandmother Nellie’s house. “My house was vanilla, not even French or Mexican vanilla, just plain vanilla,” she remembers. “But my grandmother Nellie, who lived next door, she was rainbow sprinkles. And I was a magnet to her.”
Nellie would greet a young Sheila at the door after school, often wearing her turquoise chiffon caftan, a stark contrast to her self-proclaimed “Elvis-black” dyed hair. Together, they would spend afternoons painting, drawing, singing, and playing. Nellie would give Sheila a camera and charge her with walking around the house and yard to take still-life photos. Then they would load up in her white Lincoln Continental with a chocolate brown top and drive to Fox Photo to have the film processed. After that, they would paint their favorite photos while watching the Grand Old Opry together or recording songs from Dr. Zhivago to a cassette tape, Nellie on the pipe organ and Sheila on the mic. “She invited me into a very deep place creatively at a young age,” says Youngblood, who also owns Rancho Pillow, her second home turned other worldly retreat, in Round Top and a destination for those attending the Marburger Antiques Fair this week.
This was the foundation for the creative life Youngblood has built with her family within the walls of their Spanish-style home (they spent two years on renovation) and throughout their travels around the world. Most of the home’s exterior is hidden behind a ivy-covered stone wall that blends in with the rest of the neighborhood, but look closer and signs that this is a far cry from an ordinary abode are everywhere: Before you open the arched front door, you notice a pyramid of stark cow skulls hanging over the pool, a concrete rhino holding court outside the gate, forty-some pink bulbs hanging from stately oak trees, and a giant metal crown sitting atop the pool house.
“Someone very dear to me once said, ‘When I’m in your house or at the Rancho, I feel like I’m walking around inside of your body.’ I love that he didn’t say ‘mind,’ because I don’t create with my head. I create with my heart,” she says. “What I wear, what my spaces look and feel like—these are expressions of my own heart, and inviting people into a space where you can feel the love and the soulfulness is my goal. It’s an invitation into something deeper. It’s gratifying, inspiring, and undeniably real.”
Sheila Youngblood, the owner of Rancho Pillow in Round Top, stands in the entryway of her Austin home wearing her signature glasses. She commissioned graffiti artist Frederico Archuleta to paint the rose pattern on her barrel-vaulted ceiling. She first fell in love with the artist’s work after seeing it on the side of Tesoros, a shop on South Congress Avenue. “I wanted to encourage people to look up!” she says. The bird on the wall is a piece of Brazilian folk art that Youngblood found in the fields of Round Top during Antiques Week years ago. It’s also the image that she gave to graphic designer Mishka Westell to use in creating the logo for Rancho Pillow. "To me, it is a symbol of freedom and love, and of peace and flight, representing the blooming of our own souls," she says. “The bird represents a feeling that I hope Rancho evokes in people who visit."
When Youngblood and her family first moved in, she wanted to paint the exterior of the house “black caviar” or Frida Kahlo’s “Coyoacan blue.” Friends discouraged the bold move, but she still wanted to make the outside feel as magical as the inside. Her solution? Art. The idea for a ghost herd was inspired by a small installation of skulls photographer George O. Jackson Jr. did at the Gage Hotel, in Marathon. Jackson and Youngblood had an immediate connection, and he helped her hang the skulls at her home. “Years after we hung them, birds still nest in them, snakes shed their skins in them, and the ivy is wrapped around them so perfectly,” she says. ”I guess they've made several homes better, not just ours.
The ceiling detail—created by artist Michelle Marchesseault, who now lives in Brooklyn—in the family’s main living room was taken directly from a set of pillows Youngblood brought home from Chiapas, Mexico. “Art in one medium often influences another piece of art in my spaces,” Youngblood explains.
The family’s fireplace, just off the kitchen, features a rotating display of mementos from their extensive world travels. The painting on the right is a self-portrait done by Youngblood’s daughter, Reese. It is based on a photo Youngblood took of Reese dressed in traditional clothing and jewelry at a farm in Ecuador. “Our dog’s ashes are there too,” she says. “God bless Ouisie J. Jones.”
Youngblood has collected over 31 pieces of Barry Jelinski’s art over the years. From mirrors and tables to gyspy wagons and candelabras, pieces from Jelinski’s vivid imagination and artistic talent can be found throughout her home and at Rancho Pillow.
On the second floor, Reese (pictured) and Kirby (Youngblood's son) have a playroom featuring gypsy-wagon-style bunk beds, Youngblood and artist Jelinski’s creation. Vintage sconces hang on the velvet walls inside the wagons and the kids climb up “tree limbs” to get to the top bunk, adorned with Youngblood’s great-grandmothers’ handmade quilts.
Dream catchers permanently hang on the antlers turned sconces in the master bedroom and are a recurring presence in all the bedrooms in the home. Youngblood has spent many hours wandering through folk-art markets, Indian reservation markets, and flea markets. “They represent the circle of life, and it reminds us daily that the way we die is as important as the way we live,” she says.
The sitting room next to Youngblood’s closet is a showcase of her love of textiles: on the floor is a boucherouite rug from Morocco, and the Native American portrait on the right was done by her greatest inspiration, her grandmother Nellie.
Youngblood found the palm mat that hangs in the corner of her sitting room more than a decade ago in Sayulita, Mexico. The chair is draped in a Navajo beaded moose hide. The painting on the left depicts the Maine coastline, where the family spends every summer.
The closet that is perched at the top of the house may be Youngblood’s favorite place. They brought in barnwood flooring from France and built shelves and racks throughout the long, narrow space. “It is full of my most intimate notes, letters from my children, photos, books, bags, headdresses, eyewear, vintage jewelry, hats, ponchos, and literally hundreds of caftans,” she says. “Everything in this converted attic space warms my heart.”
Old nail heads to hold Youngblood's extensive and diverse jewelry collection line an entire wall of the closet. She layers her outfits (often a caftan) with pieces from the wall—conch necklaces from Papua New Guinea, leather-wrapped rosaries from France, silver from Oaxaca, black pearls that she and Reese meticulously harvested themselves from a pearl farm in French Polynesia. “Everything is acquired from the road. I have never once selected jewelry online and hit ‘add to cart.’”
“I’ve never been a minimalist. I choose white only for sheets, towels, and fingernail polish—Essie’s marshmallow for over twenty years,” Youngblood says, sitting in her master bathroom, which features a more subdued aesthetic than the rest of the house.
Austin painter and close friend Elizabeth Chapin painted portraits of Reese and Kirby, when they were nine and eight respectively, based on poems Youngblood wrote about her children. “It was the perfect time for portraits, when they were no longer babies, but before the shift to becoming their more-adult selves happened,” she explains.
A look inside Reese’s room, who at fourteen is already an enterprising artist. She painted the canvas draperies that hang in her room when she was seven. She has completed apprenticeships with designers in New York, Austin, and Aspen and has collaborated with photographers to style lookbooks. This month she is featured in Inc. magazine talking about entrepreneurship and her school, the Acton Academy. While she can often be found making movies, baking, creating costumes, or choreographing dances, she is currently designing her Quinceañera dress for the winter bash they are planning to throw at Rancho Pillow.
Kirby’s two favorite things, hats and dragons, were incorporated into the design of his room. His turquoise walls were inspired by the blue stairs at downtown Austin’s La Condesa restaurant. The rug is part of the Moroccan collection that Youngblood imports and sells at Rancho Pillow.
Kirby's curated collection of treasures rest on a vintage hutch on one of the walls of his room.
Loretta, the family’s French bulldog, was born in San Francisco. She loves skateboarding around Pease Park and leaf-chasing in Shoal Creek near their house.