Whitney Sage Paints a Melancholy Ode to Midwestern Homesickness [Interview]
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this post ran in 2021. We’re publishing this update in honor of our July 2023 exhibition, Ancestral Landscapes: Investigating Heritage and Home, which includes work from Whitney Sage.
Like most Midwesterners, Whitney Sage’s hometown holds a special place in her heart. Born in the suburbs of Detroit, the multidisciplinary artist has since relocated to another Midwestern locale, but her work continues to mine the Motor City for inspiration.
In her Homesickness Series, Whitney creates melancholy portraits of suburban Detroit. Her inky works evoke the uneven exposure and low tonal range of an old-timey tintype, a photographic process made popular during the Civil War. In choosing a vintage aesthetic, Sage captures a subdued nostalgia that echoes a universal longing for home and familiarity in an unstable world. Simultaneously, her work zeros in on the geographic particularities of her own upbringing, casting light on the vestiges of a once-booming industrial powerhouse. Unlike similar work that fixates on Detroit’s gutted urban areas, Whitney nurses the city’s residential wounds with painfully intimate architectural portraits. Her isolated structures, obscured by overgrowth, convey the eerie emptiness of the city’s sparse and scattered population. Each individual work “serves to memorialize threatened histories or serve as stark reminders of the absence left behind by the physical erasure of markers of history in the name of blight removal or gentrification,” Whitney writes in her artist statement.
Whitney’s Portraits of Home Series, an offshoot of the Homesickness Series, blends architecture with portraiture by adopting an 18th century-style oval format. In directing our gaze to the center of the oval—where the face is usually located—Whitney creates a penetrating narrative that breathes life into the history of Detroit’s endangered homes. “Through a focus on specific domestic spaces and lots, the series connects to the experience of individual people and families who occupied each site, exploring connections between identity and the role that home and memory play in its formation,” Whitney writes.
Though her work reads as deeply personal, Whitney also taps into a uniquely Midwestern sentiment about homesickness and the measure of loss in our lives: exotic locations may appear glamorous, but our roots and duties remain fixed to certain geographies. Like another optimistic Midwesterner in ruby red shoes, Whitney ultimately finds there truly is no place like home.
Scroll through to read our interview with Whitney, then head over to NOT REAL ART’s July 2023 exhibition, Ancestral Landscapes: Investigating Heritage and Home to see her submission, “Neighbors.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Whitney Sage discusses the collaborative works of Judy Chicago, building community by activating empathy, and the crunchy bliss of Detroit-style pizza.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Whitney Sage: Art & Fear by Bayles and Orland is one I return to often every five years or so, and I find I get something new from it every time I read it.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
WS: That’s such a hard question because there are so many historic and contemporary artists that I admire, but if I had to pick someone, I think I would love to have dinner with Judy Chicago. I profoundly respect the path she and other feminist artists carved out for themselves given the limited opportunities given to women artists at the time. The collaborative work and partnerships amongst Chicago and many of her peers is influential as it is an example of creating partnerships and support systems that I know that many early-career female and minority-identifying artists would benefit from.
What are you trying to express with your art?
WS: The specifics of what I try to express with my art of course changes across the various bodies of work I’ve produced, but I think something that unifies my practice is the idea of activating empathy through my work. My work creates a window into an experience that is regionally specific while also being related to broader generational decline. Through media representation and place-based stereotyping, we’ve othered the experience of those who live in cities and the regions most impacted by generational shifts in urban disinvestment, communal flight, and the decline of the manufacturing resource production. I hope my work serves to reinforce the connections we share as human beings and to connect my audience to the plight of these regions through our shared desire to belong and to create stronger, healthier communities around us.
Do you prefer New York- or Chicago-style pizza?
WS: Being originally from Michigan, I actually prefer Detroit-style pizza, which makes me something of an oddity living in Chicago now. I just think the crunchy rectangular crust corners cannot be beat.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
WS: No, I personally wouldn’t work free in exchange for exposure, though it is important to recognize that many artists are now expected to pay for exposure and support through the practice of charging application fees for most exhibition calls and grant opportunities. In this way, we are expecting artists themselves to monetarily support other artists and the art institutions that house their work. We live in a culture that may value the existence of art but systemically undervalues monetarily supporting artists, leaving artists of all experience levels and educational backgrounds to both support and compete one another.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
WS: One of my proudest personal achievements is the confidence I’ve gained in making work that is important to me. I think it took me a really long time to find a body of work that was authentic to my experiences and values and wasn’t instead dictated by what others may have thought my work should be. I’m also hopeful that my greatest achievements are yet to come now that I finally have some personal and professional stability.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
WS: Make more and worry less. I think it’s hard sometimes to feel like you don’t have all the answers for what you want a new body of work to become, but it’s important to just make the work and figure it out as you go…don’t let the unknowns paralyze the making, making the work will lead to transformation.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
WS: This is a really challenging question that I always have to mentally work through regularly, since a big part of my job is mentoring college-age student artists. It is difficult for me to downplay the transformation that my artistic practice underwent as a result of education I received from my professors in undergraduate and graduate studies.
This transformation as well as the opportunity to become financially supported by an institution as a faculty have provided stability and opportunities that are hard to undervalue. That being said, there are endless examples of self-taught artists who’ve achieved success outside of the formal education system and as a result, not been tied to the exclusionary traditions of taste and formalism that can sometimes be forced upon young student artists. It’s also important to be conscious of the incredible financial cost of art programs and the burden of loan debt that is and creates barriers for many. The difficult answer to this question is that I feel an arts education is important and valuable to many, but it shouldn’t be a gatekeeper to individual professional success, nor should its value create the burden of unsurmountable financial debt.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
WS: Gosh, so many things need to change, it’s hard to zero in on just one thing. I guess to pinpoint something, I wish there was more accessible space and support for younger, less established artists. The hustle and struggle is real for so many young artists, and I think a lot of incredible voices are lost to burnout and disillusionment. To try to claw your way out from obscurity requires endless work, expense, and time in order to seek out, apply for, and receive exhibition opportunities and financial support…this on top of all of the time and cost to sustain a fulfilling and rigorous studio practice.
While so many opportunities exist now that didn’t 30 years ago, it’s still frustrating to see blockbuster exhibitions and large awards continually awarded to the same artists or artists from the same institutions. And it’s not that those artists are undeserving, but that at the same time, we’re seeing hundreds or thousands of lower-profile artists applying and competing for the handful of opportunities that exist for a single $500 grant.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
WS: I listen to music all over the spectrum in the studio, but I continue to really enjoy listening to art podcasts while I work. Specifically, I’m a big fan of the Sound & Vision podcast because of their focus on younger contemporary artists who are across the spectrum in terms of establishment.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
WS: Unfortunately, I’m sure the pandemic will have more significant negative impacts on many smaller market galleries, which often serve younger and less-known artists. I do think that the required shift to hosting better, more dynamic online exhibitions has opened up cheaper, accessible opportunities for artists to exhibit their work in broader-reaching exhibitions, so I do think that is hopefully a positive outcome of the pandemic.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
WS: I’m currently working on expanding my Portraits of Home series, with 30 new works in production as part of that series. I’m excited to see that series expand and for opportunities for the entire series to be exhibited in mass. I think that scale will have a large impact on the expressive capabilities of that body of work, so I’m excited for the opportunity to see that through.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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