The Big Questions, with Joel Sager

As they say, art does not exist in a vacuum.  But it can seem that way when you are looking at a canvas suspended against the white sea of a gallery wall.  It is fun to guess about the origins and meanings of a painting, but the questions of context loom large.  And the creator is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle. 

I hope this blog can be, among other things, a window into the minds of artists.  It seemed natural to begin this project with Joel Sager, because he is a good-natured guinea pig, and because I was curious myself. 

He has an abundance of self-effacing charm;  I haven’t met anyone who didn’t like him.  But he is not given to expounding on his work or himself.  He can be mysterious.  This quality spills over to his art, which seems purposefully enigmatic, even as it is intimate: domestic objects rendered with melancholy singularity; portraits of thoughtful-looking people (and one I particularly like of an equally thoughtful black Labrador Retriever); indistinct landscapes…

What is going on before, behind, underneath his art?  I armed myself with a notecard of questions and had a cup of coffee with him to find out.  

The Interview:

Let’s start with the big questions:  What is the purpose of art?

Holy cow, you don’t mess around…   I think most artists, including myself, strive to create something that makes the viewer see in a new way.  When I look at art, I am hoping to see the world in a different way.

Your work is thoughtful, but it’s also usually pleasant to behold.  Is beauty in art important?

People talk about beauty, but I think a better word is usually “truth.”  Any form of art should speak to a greater truth—which can sometimes be pretty, but it also can be something very ugly.

So great art can be ugly?


Are there any misconceptions people have about your art?

I don’t think I would ever tell someone their interpretation of my work is wrong.  I try to be open to the response, even if I learn that I made a mistake in communicating clearly with the viewer.  But I also think one of the most amazing things about art is the subjectivity–that one person can approach an artwork and have a different reaction from someone else.

What inspires you to create?

Antiquity inspires me: old objects, old trinkets, old furniture.  I try to surround myself with things I have gathered from flea markets and antique stores.  It’s not just for the fact that the objects are old, but that they have become archetypal, that they represent essential form and function.

Is there anything you can’t work without?

I have to listen to good music when I work.  With paints and my iPod, I can work pretty much anywhere, as long as there aren’t a lot of distractions.

What are you listening to these days?

This sounds really pretentious, but I’ve been listening to opera lately.  One of my mentors (Richard Harriman) passed away recently.  He was the founder of the Harriman Arts program, and he brought a lot of opera to Kansas City, and that inspired me to start listening.  He had a big influence on me, and my exposure to the art world.  And after he passed away I decided to start listening to opera and trying to understand it better.  It’s one of the things he taught me as a professor, and I just hadn’t given it the time.  But I also listen to Elliot Smith.

What inspired the portraits currently on display at PS:?

The show prior to that had sold well, so I told myself that I wanted to go into the studio with no preconceived notions of subject matter or medium.  I have always loved portraiture, that play between an expression that is rendered and how that can affect the real person looking at it.  I just love that interaction.

 How did you pick your subjects?

When I decided this was the direction I wanted to go, I kept my camera with me while I was strolling around, and I stopped people.  I’d say, “I know this is a really strange question, but I am doing a series of portraits, would you mind if I did one of you?”  I didn’t go into detail.  I think a lot of them thought I was doing a J-school (University of Missouri Journalism School) project.  And I would do a quick sketch, and I think a lot of them thought I was taking notes, but I was actually drawing them.   I took 25 or 26 photos of interesting faces, and then I culled it down to the 8 that I liked best.

When did you feel that you had transitioned into being a professional artist?

I… still don’t feel like feel like a professional artist.  (Laughs)  If I had to pick a time where I was like, “Wow, this is really cool,” it’s every month that I am able to pay my bills and support myself financially.  It’s not that selling work is the ultimate thing–but to feel that someone appreciates what you’re doing enough to financially support it.  And Jennifer Perlow and Chris Stevens have been so supportive, continuously over these years… I have my moments  when I think, “Wow, I am really doing this.”  But I do still feel like a little kid, playing all the time.

Was art something you did when you were a child?

I wasn’t very good at sports.  I played soccer a little bit, but I wasn’t any star athlete.  But I was just always, always drawing—always had my head in a sketchbook.  And I loved it.  So it seemed like the logical thing to do for a career.

How would you say that your work has evolved since your college days?

I look back at my some of my college work and I wish I could get back to that way of seeing.  Sometimes I see a small aspect that I feel like I’ve lost because maybe I have become jaded…  But of course over time any artist develops their technical abilities to be able to communicate more precisely.  So I hope I’ve become more succinct.  We’re all kind of scatter-brained when we’re in college, and you hope to gain focus over the years. 

 Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever done?

Sadly, after I have time away from paintings, I go back and am critical about what I would change about it.  I think some part is weak, or some part is off in color or value or intensity…  But at the same time it’s like getting a tattoo.  You have to think, “That’s where I was at the time, so it’s right for that reason.”

I did a painting of a priest seated in a wingback chair.  It was pretty big.  There are images of it on my site, but the impact of seeing it in person is really important for me.  It’s like a life-sized person in front of you.  And this priest had these really beautiful blue eyes and grey hair.  But he was very modest and pious, you could tell in his disposition, and the way he carried himself, and in his face.  The weather of his face told a story…  in real life, I mean.  And I tried to capture some of that.  That was a fun painting to do, and to see people react to.

Is there a certain mistake that you think you’ve learned the most from?

It’s important not to take yourself too seriously, but there have been times when I didn’t take myself seriously enough.  Both sides of that are slippery slopes.  On one side you have complete obsessive compulsive behavior, and on the other side apathy and cynicism.  I try to find the place in the middle where I can be real.




1 Response to “The Big Questions, with Joel Sager”

  1. September 4, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    Lovely blog post. Interesting to hear from the artist behind the artwork. 🙂

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