Whitney Sage was born and raised in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Whitney attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and graduated cum laude in 2008 with Bachelor’s degrees in Art Education and Painting. In 2007, she received the Fred and Molly Pye Painting Scholarship at Miami and was accepted into Manifest Gallery’s Rites of Passage Exhibition, an international exhibition of emerging undergraduate art students. Whitney earned her M.F.A. in Studio Art from Washington University in St. Louis in May, 2011. Notable exhibitions including Sage’s work include Detroit: A Brooklyn Case Study at Superfront LA Gallery in Los Angeles, California, Nowhere/Everywhere at the Lexington Art League, Utopia/Dystopia, a curated exhibition at Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Extreme Fibers: Textile Icons and the New Edge at the Muskegon Museum of Art.
Whitney’s work has been featured in a number of publications including the Washington University in St. Louis’ MFA 2011 catalogue, and the Detroit: A Brooklyn Case Study exhibition catalogue. Several of her works are also featured through the online publication, Wake: Great Lakes Thought & Culture . More recently, Recently Whitney’s works have also been featured in the MACAA Conference catalog, Qua Magazine, a literary and fine arts publication, and the Post-Industrial Complex Catalog, published by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as a survey of makers in the Detroit area. Currently, Whitney is serving as Lecturer of Art at Ohio University at Zanesville and Eastern campuses, teaching both studio and lecture courses.
As a native of the suburban Detroit area, the city’s rich cultural heritage and its relevance to the conception of the “American way of life” are things that I’ve always found intriguing and hugely influential to both my artwork and my own identity. It’s a place of increasingly storied cultural relevance with parallels to larger American struggles, big industry and suburban flight failing Detroit whilst leaving behind heavily photographed, ghostly architectural skeletons and scarred empty plots of land. Throughout my career I have continually depicted Detroit as subject matter, not only as a personal crusade for a place I love, but also as an opportunity for more universal dialog about tough histories and to take a critical look at the lenses through which we view each other. In my work I seek to honor the pride that Detroiters share, despite the city’s decline into something of a media darling and the poster child of post-industrial decline. While my practice is rooted in a deeply personal and specific experience, the work seeks to appeal to many through universal notions of home, loss, hope and the protective impulse that we share for the people and places we love.
Interview with Whitney Sage
Questions by Emily Burns
Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin and how do you create your compositions? Does drawing play a part in your work?
In terms of my process, works always seem to come out of quick bursts of inspiration in terms of the form and the specific take on the subject matter. Oftentimes my works are made in response to current events or media reportage and that tends to make each series wildly different from each other in terms of medium and what content specifically the work aims to address. In terms of how I begin a series, I often collect images and articles that relate to the idea or the theme of the work and from there do some writing in my sketchbook. I often draw out charts using words and ideas that I'm interested in which helps me limit the visual and conceptual narrative to the most important and direct language possible. Using that initial prep work, I then complete drawn sketches to work out the visual components of each work. Preliminary drawing is a huge part of my process, whether mapping out small details or visualizing the larger final product. With sculptural pieces, I often make sculptural sketches as well, experimenting with material manipulation and producing small maquettes.
What began your interest in the architecture as a theme in your work?
I began focusing on architecture as image and theme in paintings I began making in 2007. Those oil and watercolor paintings were made in response to popular images of ruined buildings in Detroit that were showing up all over the internet. I was fascinated by other people's fascination with the city, because as someone who had grown up within metro-Detroit, I was familiar with the ruined buildings there and hadn't really thought of the images or Detroit's economical plight as being worse than any other Midwestern rust-belt city. Thus these first works came out of the desire to understand the human fascination with ruins and how ruins relate to the construction of urban identity. Personally I respond to architecture because it's directly related to the legacy of human existence and images of a building, a neighborhood or a city are often deeply linked to emotional states of nostalgia, homesickness and, in Detroit's case, loss. As my work has evolved, the role that architecture plays within it has cycled from architecture as image, to architecture as material and architecture as allegory.
Can you tell us more about your My City, My Home, My Body series?
The series was the culmination of work I created during graduate school in St. Louis, Missouri. I found that once geographically removed from Detroit, the impulse of responding to the city became increasingly emotional for me. I think this was perhaps rooted in my own homesickness and a protective impulse in reaction to seeing Detroit through an outsider's perspective through constant national media coverage of Detroit, the auto bailout and the city's descent into bankruptcy. My City, My Home, My Body was conceptualized as using the ruined building as a metaphor for bodily aging and degradation that ultimately leads to death. I liked the idea of linking the human life cycle with a city's life cycle as well as showing how a building isn't simply an eyesore, but a residual byproduct of human trauma. For me, the works embodied my own internalized feelings of loss when confronted with Detroit's ruined buildings, similar to feelings of loss experienced as we age and are forced to reconcile with human mortality. While a city can be regenerated and reborn, there is something permanently lost when the history of a particular population and place in time is left to rot and eventually hauled away.
What is a typical day like for you?
My best days of production often happen on weekends and during extended breaks from school and each "work" day is completely different in most cases. Sometimes I'll spend a day reading about issues related to the work, researching and finding new artists or looking up articles or source material. Other days will be split between making sketches, prepping materials, doing material explorations and working on more finished works. I like to mix up my process constantly because it keeps me actively engaged and through reading or being exposed to a new artist, it often influences or solidifies the direction of in-progress projects or in other cases, give me ideas for future series of work.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have overcome as an artist so far in your career?
My biggest challenge as an artist currently is the balancing of my roles as an educator and as a practicing artist. It's easy to feel the need to throw yourself entirely into your teaching, and if you are not tenured it almost feels expected, and I find myself at times feeling selfish when I take time to focus on my own personal work. I'm learning to silence those voices over time, because I'm finding that it is incredibly important to maintain that part of your creative practice to maintain sanity and re-stimulate my own artistic curiosity and intellectual challenge. Consequently, being locked in your own conceptual and visual struggles makes you a better instructor to students who are running into their own similar problems when creating artwork. Since I'm newer to higher education, I think I've not always won that struggle over maintaining balance in the past, so that's my current goal I'm working on to find ways to put myself and my artwork at a higher priority.
Can you describe your studio space? What are your most important workspace essentials?
It's pretty important for me to have my studio close to my living space, especially given the time constraints on my studio practice during the school year and the amount of travel my job requires. Currently my studio space is our second bedroom in our apartment and it while it definitely puts constraints on the scale of the works I can create, it's important that I'm able to jump into a project anytime I can, even if it's just for an hour or two before bed or in between grading. It might seem obvious, but my biggest workspace essential are table surfaces, I cannot do all the concurrent material experimentation, prep work and sketching without having enough surfaces to accommodate it. It's important for all of those parts of my practice to be able to speak to each other and so at any one time, I've got at least 1 or 2 collapsible tables set up in my studio for this.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Books that were particularly influential to my themes in my artwork were Thomas Sugrue's "The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit," Peter Kageyama's "For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places" and Alberto Perez-Gomez's "Built Upon Love: Architectural Longing After Ethics and Aesthetics." In terms of the struggles of being an artist and the barriers to a productive artistic practice I find myself constantly returning to "Art and Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It's just one of those books where you want to yell "Yes!" out loud from time to time and it really helps you to work through some of the psychological barriers artists deal with. Currently I'm reading "Art and the Home" by Imogen Racz and "Replacing Home" by Jennifer Johung and I'm getting some really good source material from their discussions of other artists who deal with the space and ideas of the home.
What are some of the artists that you look at feel that your work is in dialogue with?
Since my work jumps around between mediums, I find my work constantly shifting in terms of the influences and the artist's my work is responding to. The My City, My Home, My Body series were specifically responding to the works of Rachel Whiteread, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Jill Downing. My works were specifically trying to address history and loss through the language of the domestic architectural fragment, as representative of the enormous abandonment and emptiness that has become iconic of Detroit's struggles and plagues Detroit's revival. Materially and conceptually these artists were all really influential to the making of those works. In terms of the impulse that drives the work, I see a linkage to Do Ho Suh's incredibly detailed fiber installations of former or current residences. I'm constantly in awe of how those pieces capture the emotional intimacy that exists between people and the places they occupy and what the incredible detailing of every surface and object says about memory and longing.
What is the current vibe in the art scene in Detroit?
Detroit's art scene is fantastic and incredibly diverse, the work coming out of Detroit is all over the place in terms of medium and the traditions it fits within. I'd say the largest unifying factor of the community is a genuine artistic impulse, Detroit artists aren't making work just because it is on trend or because it's what's selling. The vibe is really exciting in the city, there are a growing number of opportunities within the community for artistic contribution; a lot of new galleries, residencies and alternative non-white cube spaces. A lot of attention has been paid to the recent influx of new artists into the city from all over the world, but there has always been an incredibly rich art community historically in Detroit, though coverage and documentation of their work hasn't traditionally been strong. Along with all the negative coverage about the city's struggles, there have been positive stories about how artists have been at the root of some of the revitalization efforts putting a larger spotlight on the Detroit art scene and Detroit's artists could not be more deserving of the attention.
Do you have any exciting news or shows coming up?
My schedule is actually going to slow down a little in the coming months, after a busy few months participating in three different exhibits which included a traveling exhibition on display at the Muskegon Museum of Art and the Dennos Museum Center. Coming up in July I'm excited to have a piece included in an alumni exhibition at my alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and in the meantime, I'm waiting to hear back about possible artist residencies this summer. No matter how the next few months unfold, I'm looking forward to some extended time for making as my school semester wraps up in the next month.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Whitney and her work check out her website.