Painting With Fire - 405 Magazine

Painting With Fire

Artist Jay Sage harnesses combustion for creation.

Photos by Charlie Neuenschwander

Artist Jay Sage harnesses combustion for creation.

Jay Sage is known for lighting fires. Not for destruction, but instead for creating emotive, visceral works of art. What started out as a complete accident — a fit of rage with a blowtorch brought about by an artist’s failure to get the piece “just right” — turned into inspiration. He taught himself how to master flames as an artistic tool to evolve his pieces from abstract shapes to expressive portraits. Sage talks us through his discovery, and the process of creating and controlling art with fire.

Artist Jay Sage in his OKC studio.

Why did you pursue art?

I had a very good high school art teacher. She always believed in me and knew what to say, and knew what kind of a kid that I was. My senior year she had pulled me aside, and she told me I’d never make it as an artist. She knew exactly what she was doing. She knew my personality, who I was and that I would want to prove her wrong.

The stuff you do with gunpowder — how did you discover that?

I actually got my start in oil painting, and I really loved the amount of detail that I could achieve and the control that I had with it. I wanted to learn how to let go and loosen up a bit, though. So I took a watercolor workshop, but I struggled with the drastic change in the technique.

Once, I was working on a portrait that I probably restarted over a half a dozen times. I was attempting to get the eyes just right, but I was impatient and overworked the area. So of course, I did what any normal, sane, rationally thinking person would do: I grabbed the nearest thing to me — which, because I was in my garage, happened to be a blowtorch — and I lit the painting on fire and I threw it across the room.

The painting was leaning face up against the wall, and it was staring right at me through the flames. The water where I had overworked in the eyes — it was kind of streaming down the cheeks as though tears were ruining her mascara and her makeup. There was the emotion that I was looking for. It was perfect. I spent the next year or so exploring fire and watercolor together in a series of works before dropping the watercolor altogether and creating more abstract works from fire, using a torch flame as a brush. Then, over time, that eventually led to gunpowder.

How did you perfect your process?

On paper, it seems so simple: buy some gunpowder, lay it down, light it on fire, and you get an image. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a very complex and dangerous process … I once attempted to use sulfur in its raw powder form. It’s one of the main ingredients in the creation of gunpowder. What could go wrong? Turns out, a lot. When sulfur burns, it produces sulfur dioxide, which is a toxic gas. Talk about a learning curve!

You do live shows with your art; how does that process work?

I really just do what I do in my studio every day. I just put on cooler music and let people watch. People love seeing explosions. I’ll do a little projection mapping, or do a little dance and play some music and blow things up. More often than not, my performance pieces are the ones that end up selling because someone was there — they witnessed it. They were part of that experience, and now they have that story to tell.

What is the message you hope people take away from your art?

Every piece that I create is very intimate and personal; it is a little piece of my soul, an insight into my faith and my life. If you look at my work, it’s very clearly a painting, but the realistic part is the emotion. I’m trying to tug at someone’s soul, not at their eyes.

Gunpowder was discovered by Chinese alchemists in search of an elixir of immortality. It wasn’t long before its destructive properties were discovered. So, I like to believe that I take this thing that’s commonly used to destroy, and instead, use it to create — bring it back around to its original purpose of healing. And in a way, help me live forever through my art.