Tarred & painted

A Columbia artist finishes his pieces with a dark medium
Sunday, October 8, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:04 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008


Artist Joel Sager, known for his paintings depicting disappearing rural life, sits in his home studio in Columbia. His paintings will be displayed at the Perlow-Stevens Gallery, 812 E. Broadway, starting Tuesday and continuing through Dec. 28.

(Photos by ALYCIA LEWIS/Missourian)

Creation and destruction define Joel Sager’s artwork and, to some extent, his life in recent years.

When a tornado destroyed his Independence home and belongings in 2003, Sager, now 26, scraped the tar splattered on remains and used it to paint. Later that year, Jennifer Perlow, then co-owner of Poppy in Columbia, spotted Sager’s work, and her fondness for his style of “creating things that look destroyed” landed him a place to display his paintings. The relationship later earned him a permanent showcase and the title of associate curator at her new gallery, whose opening, Perlow said, was partly inspired by Sager.

Today, however, his work is focusing neither on creation nor destruction. Rather, Sager is accepting things as they are and reflecting on them. Literally.

Sager’s newest body of work, “Treescapes and Waterfronts,” opening Tuesday at Perlow-Stevens Gallery, 812 E. Broadway, features dark trees mirrored in water, an extension of watercolors he painted last year at Capen Park overlooking Hinkson Creek.

In “Treescapes,” Sager attends more to the technical quality of his oil paintings and less to conveying a message.

“I was thinking mostly about color and value,” he said.

His command of color sets him apart artistically, Columbia sculptor Chris Teeter said.

Teeter, whose work Sager says inspires him, said that although they use different mediums, the artists have a similar way of interpreting their subjects. “I like my pieces to refer to things in the world, but not be depictions necessarily,” Teeter said. “We share a common ground in that respect.”


Joel Sager’s collection, “Treescapes and Waterfronts,” is a series painted last year overlooking Hinkson Creek. Sager uses a tar wash to finish his oil paintings.

Sager’s past works are gritty, sometimes primitive portraits, landscapes and still-lifes painted in rusty colors and finished with his trademark tar wash, which gives the subjects a somber tone. His paintings, usually drawn from thumbnail sketches, are done in layers: first acrylic, then oil, then tar.

While his new series stays true to his aesthetic style, these works center less on destruction than his previous paintings about diminishing rural and small-town life. “He’s trying to capture this sense, or sensibility, before it’s too late,” Perlow said of the gloomy rural scenes. “This quaint, snapshot way of life is changing. In 15 years will you be able to take a picture of an old, wooden barn? No.”

In “Treescapes and Waterfronts,” colors are dark, but the sense of Sager’s dissatisfaction with his subject seems absent.

Sager ascribes his fascination with nature and farming to growing up in mid-Missouri and being the second generation in his family not to farm. Born in St. Joseph, Sager moved to Sedalia at age 4 and spent most of his childhood there before finishing high school in Jefferson City and then moving to Independence to attend William Jewell College.

After graduating, Sager picked up the tar wash style in 2003 while studying under Kansas City artist Mark English, who is most recognized for his illustrations. The tar, which can range from black to brown to translucent blue depending on where it was derived from, intensifies the emotions in Sager’s moody paintings.

Sager first experimented with the medium while working with English, but he said his attraction to darkness has always been present: “I was always more fascinated with dark stuff rather than bright, happy-looking things.”

Today, his style and subject choices are so distinct that when he attempted abstract painting, he saw in his work a bird’s-eye view of farmland rather than the boxy shapes he had set out to create. Thus, an earlier 2006 show, “Destruction of the State: An Aerial View,” was born.

These days, Sager is awaiting a different kind of birth as he prepares for parenthood with his fiancee, Jeni, by painting the walls yellow and deciding what to hang. He’s considering faceless portraits for his next project, but for now he paints in the morning, works at the Perlow-Stevens Gallery in the afternoon and spends the rest of his time preparing — both for his child and his upcoming show.

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