Artist reflects on Blair County influences in acclaimed career | News, Sports, Jobs

03/30/22 Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Artist Rachel Sager sits in front pieces from her Breakthrough series in the lobby of Comfort Suites at the Pinecroft exit of I-99.

As a 12-year-old, former Hollidaysburg resident and artist Rachel Sager learned persistence, the value of re-work and high standards while a marketing intern at Hoss’s Steak and Sea House corporate offices.

It was an opportunity afforded her by her father’s uncle — Hoss’s founder Bill Campbell. Her father, Dane Sager, worked in the marketing office at the time.

“Working at Hoss’s was insanely wonderful,” Sager said during a phone interview while visiting family in the area. “It was pretty affirming to do the work and to get paid. It was quite challenging and to have money associated with that work and my art led me to consider pursuing art for a career.”

Sager returned recently to the area — where she spent holidays and summers growing up — after an exhibit of her paintings at the Metropolitan Art Fair in New York City. Now 44, Sager made a name for herself on the West Coast, but the NYC show helped introduce her work to new clients and East Coast dealers, including one dealer who plans to visit her studio in Petaluma, located in the North Bay region of the San Francisco Bay area of ​​Sonoma County in California. Sager’s lived in California for the past 15 years.

Sager first rose to acclaim as one of two American painters selected for a PBS documentary, which won an Emmy in 2007. In “Sketching the Silk Road,” Sager and another American artist traveled an ancient silk trade route across China and were the first to film inside the grottos known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.

The directors, Sager said, approached her while she was participating in an art workshop and she beat out “a lot of other artists” for the experience — “I’m quite proud about that.”

Sager’s self-confidence to undertake such a journey began with her internship at Hoss’s and the mentorship provided by Betsy Lehman of Hollidaysburg, who then worked in marketing and communications at Hoss’s with her father.

“Her dad knew she was an artist, and he brought her in,” Lehman explained. “You don’t expect artistic ability that great in a 12-year-old, but she was great. Back then, we didn’t have computers for drawing so the ability to draw was much coveted. There wasn’t even computer clip art back then.”

At Hoss’s, Sager created drawing sheets for customer’s children to color while dining. They featured the Hoss’s mascot in different poses in billboard ads and on the drawing sheets. Two of Sager’s designs were made into advertising billboards.

Lehman, who is the special projects director at Lehman Engineers of Hollidaysburg, a company headed by her husband, Joe Lehman Jr.

“I felt I mattered. At 12 years old, I was treated as an adult and as an artist of value,” Sager said. “They criticized my designs and told me to go back and do it again … and again. I would do it over and over and over again until it was right.”

The experience taught her not to take criticism personally and helped her develop discipline in her art. She also wore the Hoss’s mascot costume at events like the Keystone Country Fair.

“I learned a work ethic that I don’t think I would have learned elsewhere,” Sager said.

Lehman became Sager’s first mentor and, after she attended the prestigious Temple University Tyler School of Art, became her patron, buying one of her works from her college graduation exhibit. Twenty years later, Lehman said, the piece contains “a lot of movement in beautiful colors.”

“There’s a lot going on in it, and I still find something different to take my eyes to,” Lehman said, noting that her earlier works included many portraits — skills Sager developed by studying and working in Florence, Italy. Today, Sager’s works are figurative using mixed media to create “explosions” that depict transformation.

Homes and businesses in Blair County — the place Sager identifies as her home — contains the highest concentration of her artistry. In addition to the Lehman home and business, Sager’s works grace the homes of family and friends as well as her parents, Dane and Kim Sager’s, hotel businesses, The Comfort Inns in Altoona, Pinecroft and Huntingdon.

Sager remembers being put in charge of other students while making a mural in second grade.

“I having remembered the opportunity to draw the jungle-themed mural with tigers and leopards and being placed as the leader and overseeing the other students,” she said.

Her family supported her early talents with gifts of sketchbooks and art supplies. The large, multi-generational Campbell family attended her recent solo showing in New York just as they supported her with private commission work throughout her career.

“For me to get to this high level at this point — New York was a necessary step to push me into a bigger market. I have dealers coming to visit me in California now. That’s amazing,” she said, and more exciting than the $15,000 worth of paintings she sold.

But more important than selling to her is being “relevant,” she said, as she portrays the human spirit in transition through her recent works. While primarily painting with oils, Sager turned to charcoal during her pregnancies, a safer medium. After her two children’s births, she continued to use charcoal and oil together in collage-based mixed media pieces on large canvases.

“In my explosion pieces, I use charcoal as an underpainting technique and then add layers of oil paint. These are interesting because they’re not often used together. Charcoal is a natural expression of the subject matter I’m focusing on — the transformation of matter. They explore how matter changes from one stage to another. I focus on the moment of change,” she said. “I see change as a positive. It’s evolution and progression as opposed to destruction.”

Her subjects are in part inspired by the recent years of California fires — wildfires and the intentional burns aimed at controlling them.

“The wildfires are scary and bad, but controlled fires are used to create new growth. That’s the version I’m attempting to portray — maybe because I’m an optimist and a very positive thinker.”

Positive imagery of resurrection and reconstruction are also themes in her college-based figurative pieces, which also resonated with NYC art patrons. ‘I reconstruct images from old pieces of magazines to construct a new narrative. I like to explore the bigger issues of life and the passages of life such as childbirth and passing from life to death — things that are hard to express in a simple way but can be expressed when made up of a million images.”

She compares her figurative pieces as slices of memory that come through smells, images and feelings.

Sager credits her success to the lessons she learned in Blair County and the support of family and Lehman.

“They treated me as a talented artist, and I hold that value to this day,” Sager said. “I learned to be disciplined and to be serious about art and put in the work to get here.”

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