EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a three-part series of audio profiles on Columbia artists created for KBIA's arts and culture program "Off the Clock" and the Columbia Missourian. The following is the script for the profile of painter Joel Sager:
When you see artist Joel Sager around Columbia, he’s usually wearing a hat. The habit began with a sailor’s hat during an infatuation with sailors and the sea. But then he got a bald spot.
“And since I can’t style my hair in any way, I find that hats can relay a certain kind of style.”
Today, it’s a gray felt Trilby hat. As he enters his workspace at Orr Street Studios, he carries an armload of paintings for a show at PS Gallery. One of them is a still life of purple chive blossoms that he found outside his house and stuck in a glass jar.
“They almost had a gesture to me, like someone tilting their head and leaning off to the side, and I could kind of identify with that. And there’s this asymmetry that just made me think of a quirky tilt of someone’s head, like they’re getting ready to say something or had just heard something maybe interesting or strange.”
This sense of gesture animates Sager’s work, giving something like pliers or an old blade fan life and movement.
“Nothing that’s supposed to be symmetrical in my paintings is ever symmetrical, and sometimes I don’t intend it to be that way. Sometimes it’s an accident, and other times I do intend it to be that way. But regardless I feel like it’s always more interesting to me if it’s asymmetrical.”
During his childhood in Sedalia, Sager says, he painted and drew constantly. He drew Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and accessorized them, like paper dolls, stoking his imagination. Now, Sager says he finds inspiration in words and in ordinary objects like a hammer.
“A lot of my subject matter are archetypes of things, and antiques are important because they’re beautiful but they’re also this successful archetype that’s survived years and years and years of design. And they’re important not just because they’re beautiful but because they’re perfect on this design level.”
Sager works largely in oils, sometimes incorporating wallpaper and fabric. A tar wash gives his work yellows and browns like a sepia-toned photograph, but it also kicks back the more vibrant colors in the painting.
The star of one of his new, more whimsical works is a mouse with a very pink tail and very pink ears. It sits at attention on striped pillow ticking that in this scene looks like a tablecloth. The painting is called “Throw Out the Pantry Grains” and was inspired by an infestation of mice at the Sager home this past spring.
“I tried to paint him in a cute way but also in a realistic enough way that you might get the heebee geebees if you don’t care for mice at the same time. It’s kind of delicate balancing act I try to do with all of my pieces.”
Sager says he’s not trying to be philosophical or cause any ah-ha moments for people looking at his paintings.
“A lot of people read some metaphors into all art work that the artist didn’t intend, and that’s certainly has happened to me before, and I love that when that happens. It’s very interesting to hear because everything in art is contextual. You can only bring what you know about symbols to a piece of art and then interpret it from that context. I’m going to interpret something different than the next man or the next woman or the next child.”
Sager recently turned 30 and has just become a father for the second time. He says becoming a parent quickly caused him to assess his work as an artist — to make sure he is living a meaningful life as an example for his son.
But fatherhood also has affected his paintings.
“I think I maybe brought a seriousness into the studio with me, but ironically that’s been counteracted by seeing my son grow up and the whimsy and the playfulness that he brings into my life. There’s just this bright color and this vitality that I hadn’t had before.”
You can see Joel Sager's paintings at PS Gallery.
Elizabeth Brixey, for KBIA and the Columbia Missourian.