I met with Susan Sage last month to talk about her work and get a feel for her experience as an artist in Portland. We arranged to meet at her home in Northeast Portland, a cozy place where animal drawings hang from the wall and coffee always seems to be brewing.
In Issue No. 8 of PDX Magazine, a write-up of local band Minden was accompanied by a lively painting of the group’s lead singer and songwriter, Casey Burge, painted by Sage.
My conversation with Sage started with my curiosity about these animal pieces.
“I did them all in a two-week period, while I was visiting my family on the Cayman Islands. That year I brought a big pad of paper and ended up completing eight or nine animals, using lots of ink, a little watercolor and oil pastels. I was trying to think of animals that weren’t too cute, so I looked through tons of images and pieced together body parts that I liked. Each image is kind of a collage.”
“Kangaroos were the coolest…they look very sexual. They rest a lot in the heat and seem kind of human. I found all these images of them laying on the ground with their legs crossed and their eyes half mast. Anyway, I got back to Portland I set up a show at East End bar, over on SE 2nd and Grand. It was really fun. A lot of my favorite local bands played the opening. ”
“I’ve been doing ink drawings in that style for a long time. It’s very freeing. They don’t take long to make and I can sell them, so they’re worth my time. I haven’t learned to translate that sense of freedom to painting, though. It’s a different process…more time consuming.“
The painting of Burge featured in Issue No. 8 (left) was rich with textures and contrasting colors. I wondered out loud how painting a human profile differed from some of these more free-form animal drawings.
“Well, since I don’t know the animals personally there’s a lot more room for error and fun. I don’t have to get their figure perfect. Whereas with drawing and painting people, I always end up pressuring myself to get it right. I want to make it beautiful, especially if it’s somebody that I know.”
“For the last few years I’ve been really into group paintings, of people interacting and doing pretty things. I’ve sold out of all but two of those. People like the group paintings more because they’re not as confrontational. If you don’t know this friend of mine that I’ve painted, for example, it’s just a guy, you know, it doesn’t mean very much. They’re not going to put it on their wall. They think it’s probably a painting of my ex-boyfriend or something. Pretty girls on the beach though, people are more likely to put that on their wall.”
“I have recurring dreams where I’m painting and people are like, ‘Oh that must be fun,’ and I’m like, ‘No!’ It’s always the hard stuff. I’m sweating and I’m doing the same arm over and over and over and over. They have this image of me making big strokes with lots of color, but that’s a very small percentage of my paintings. Mostly it’s fine detail, hard work, doing things over and over. It’s like pulling a double shift, working all day painting and then getting stuck in a dream trying to get that one arm right.”
“One of the models that showed up during a recent shoot brought her sister. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was so wrapped up in taking photos and we were drinking all day, dressing up, and getting to know each other, but I was looking through the pictures later and in almost all of them, the sister was not having a very good time. She’s looking away or down, looking super bored and stuff, you know? I love it. It’s that isolation in the group thing. She looked so great, I’m so glad she came.”
“It’s familiar. That’s how I feel a lot of the time. You know, at parties and movies everyone’s having a good time. It’s like white noise. Everyone’s having a good time. Good! And you know, that’s not really how it is. It’s people interacting, and yeah, I’m really glad the model’s sister came because the models are very comfortable with positioning themselves in attractive ways. They know how they will look on a camera, but she didn’t. In some of them she looks kind of strung out, her hair is greasy. (Laughs) A natural Courtney Love sort of thing. But yeah, I don’t know, I’m really excited about that painting. I want to finish it so I can get another one going. I’ve got a million paintings I want to get started.”
“This is a photo shoot and a painting I did of it. You’ll notice it’s all boys except for that one female. That’s because I just have a lot more male friends. I had that shoot scheduled for a while and all these people said they were going to come. In the first hour, it was just eight guys. Then one female showed up and I was like ‘You, front and center!’ More people kept coming and they were all guys, until there were thirteen guys and still just one female. In the end all I got was two women to come which is pretty bad, so it’s the same two women in all of the paintings from that shoot. Maybe that’s why those are the only two group paintings I still haven’t sold, because they’re full of dudes.”
“I really love playing dress up. One of the best parts of the process is the photo shoot. In this one you can see I moved that guy forward a little bit and swapped things around. The zebra stool is a different color in the painting. It’s like the animal drawings in that way, a collage. I don’t paint exactly what’s there in the photo.”
“This one is a lot of fun. It’s the balance I want, of realistic but also fun. People in the image are kind of drifting off. It’s a Paris street scene, inspired by a photo I found of these people lunching. They look like they’re talking shit, like villains you know, and I felt like this was a convention of villains. There’s something very sinister about it, but also fun. This guy was out further back so I pulled him in a bit closer, then added in all these people, a street and some tables and stuff. I put a bunch of my friends into it too.”
“I took a year off from school when I moved to Seattle, to become a resident, and ended up creating over a hundred pieces that first year. Café store managers were calling me every month. There were a lot of opportunities there. Since I moved to Portland, I’ve been focusing on school and painting, so my work doesn’t have as much visibility as it has in the past. I’ve always resisted the gallery thing but I’m starting to see the appeal. I’ve just been showing my work at bars and cafes, places where they don’t take a commission. Maybe collectors want to see what I’ve done, so they browse my website and they might come and shop through my living room. But most people buy my shit online at this point. I sold an animal painting a couple days ago to a woman in Alaska. That’s how I usually do it right now.”
— Ezra Bell