Ross School senior Sage Elsesser was recently named “Best New Artist” at the 77th Annual Guild Hall Artists Member Exhibition. Out of the hundreds of artists who submitted work to this year’s and previous exhibitions, Sage is the youngest artist ever to receive the award. His work of art, first titled “III” and then later renamed “Hard to Forget,” is a drypoint print of three people lynched in Alabama in the 1900s, and one of 16 pieces he created for his Senior Project. It will be on display at Guild Hall in East Hampton through June 6.
Sage is humble about his art. In fact, it took some encouragement from his advisor, Brianna Ashe, to take a second look at “Hard to Forget” before he admitted it was a good piece. Dean of Visual Arts Jen Cross, too, was supportive after she was contacted by Guild Hall patrons to relay a request to Sage to submit his work.
“It has been a privilege to work with Sage this year as his Senior Project mentor and as his art teacher. I admire him as a self-directed artist who explores both personal and universal themes, and strives always for authenticity and meaning in his work,” Jen said.
Marla Prather, a curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, served as this year's awards judge. She spoke with Sage at the exhibition opening to let him know that his work was “important,” a statement he appreciates. “Art should convey emotion,” he said.
As an example, he mentioned the profound impact artist Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of the Great Migration had on him during a recent visit to an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The works capture the multi-decade mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. “I could hear Billie Holiday playing in the other room as I took in the paintings and observed the reactions of the other visitors. A few were simply talking about one aspect of the painting, and they missed the essence of an emotional and pivotal time period Lawrence captured. For me, it was like being in a sanctuary, and I wanted to ask them what they were thinking.”
Asked about the inspiration for his work, Sage talks of his family, especially his grandfather, who is a main influence. “He grew up in the deep South, and was a conscientious objector who spent years in a camp organized to literally shock people into believing in war. These things actually happened,” he said. A beautiful painting based on a photo his mother took of Sage as a child with his grandfather is part of his Senior Project collection. “Skillwise, it’s one of my best,” he says. It’s obvious that it is so much more, and the viewer can see the emotion and love living in the painting.
“Art is an extension of oneself,” Sage says, “and it’s gratifying to see people make a connection to my work.”
Sage will attend a prestigious art school in the fall to pursue a bachelor of fine arts degree.