When she was 12 years old, former Hollidaysburg resident and artist Rachel Sager learned persistence, the value of going back to work and high standards while she was a marketing intern at the corporate offices of Hoss’s Steak and Sea House.
It was an opportunity given to him by his father’s uncle, Hoss founder Bill Campbell. His father, Dane Sager, was working in the marketing office at the time.
“Working at Hoss’s was incredibly wonderful,” Sager said during a phone interview while visiting relatives in the area. “It was quite affirmative to get the job done and get paid. It was quite challenging and having money associated with that job and my art led me to consider art as a career.”
Sager recently returned to the area, where he spent vacations and summers growing up, after an exhibit of his paintings at the Metropolitan Art Fair in New York City. Now 44, Sager made a name for himself on the West Coast, but the New York City show helped introduce his work to new East Coast clients and dealers, including a dealer planning to visit his Petaluma studio, located in the North Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area of Sonoma County in California. Sager has lived in California for the past 15 years.
Sager first rose to fame as one of two American painters selected for a PBS documentary, which won an Emmy in 2007. “Drawing the Silk Road”, Sager and another American artist traveled an ancient silk trade route through China and were the first to film inside the grottoes known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.
The directors, Sager said, approached her while she was participating in an art workshop and she hit “many other artists” for the experience – “I’m pretty proud of that.”
Sager’s confidence to embark on that journey began with her internship at Hoss’s and mentorship by Betsy Lehman of Hollidaysburg, who later worked in marketing and communications at Hoss’s with her father.
“Her dad knew she was an artist, and he brought her,” Lehman explained. “You don’t expect such great artistic ability in a 12-year-old girl, but she was great. Back then, we didn’t have computers to draw with, so the ability to draw was highly coveted. There wasn’t even computer clip art back then.”
At Hoss’s, Sager created drawing sheets for customers’ children to color while dining. They featured Hoss’s pet in different poses in commercials and on drawing sheets. Two of Sager’s designs were made into billboards.
Lehman, who is director of special projects at Lehman Engineers of Hollidaysburg, a company headed by her husband, Joe Lehman Jr.
“I felt like it mattered. At 12 years old they treated me like an adult and like a valuable artist”, 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 until I was okay.”
The experience taught her not to take criticism personally and helped her develop discipline in her art. She also wore the Hoss mascot costume at events like the Keystone Country Fair.
“I learned a work ethic that I don’t think I would have learned anywhere else,” Sager said.
Lehman became Sager’s first mentor, and after she attended Temple University’s prestigious Tyler School of Art, he became her patron, purchasing one of her works from the university’s graduation exhibit. Twenty years later, Lehman said, the piece contains “lots of movement in beautiful colors.”
“There’s a lot going on in it, and I still find something different to look at,” Lehman said, noting that his earlier work included many portraits, skills Sager developed while studying and working in Florence, Italy. Today, Sager’s works are figurative and use mixed media to create “explosions” that represent transformation.
Homes and businesses in Blair County, the place Sager identifies as home, contain the greatest concentration of his art. In addition to Lehman’s home and business, Sager’s work adorns the homes of family and friends, as well as the hotel businesses of her parents, Dane and Kim Sager, The Comfort Inn in Altoona, Pinecroft and Huntingdon.
Sager remembers being put in charge of other students while doing a mural in second grade.
“I remember having the opportunity to draw the jungle-themed mural with tigers and leopards and being placed as the leader and supervising the other students,” she said.
His family supported his early talents with gifts of sketchbooks and art supplies. Campbell’s large multi-generational family attended her recent solo show in New York and supported her with private assignments throughout her career.
“For me, getting to this high level at this point, New York was a necessary step in propelling myself into a bigger market. Now I have distributors who come to visit me in California. That is incredible,” he said, and more exciting than the $15,000 worth of paintings he sold.
But more important than selling to her is being “important,” he said, as he portrays the human spirit in transition through his recent works. While painting primarily in oils, Sager turned to charcoal during her pregnancies, a safer medium. After the birth of her two children, 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 my base painting technique and then add layers of oil paint. These are interesting because they are often not used together. Charcoal is a natural expression of the subject I am 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 the change as something positive. It is evolution and progression rather than destruction.”
His themes are inspired in part by recent years of fires in California: wildfires and the intentional burns intended to control them.
“Wildfires are scary and bad, but controlled fires are used to create new growth. That’s the version I’m trying to portray, maybe because I’m an optimist and a very positive thinker.”
Positive images of resurrection and reconstruction are also themes in his college-based figurative pieces, which also resonated with patrons of New York art. ‘She reconstructed images from old pieces of magazines to build a new narrative. I like to explore the most important themes of life and the passages of life, such as childbirth and the passage from life to death, things that are difficult to express in a simple way but can be expressed when they are made up of a million of pictures”.
He compares his figurative pieces as pieces of memory that come through smells, images and feelings.
Sager attributes his success to the lessons he learned in Blair County and the support of family and Lehman.
“I was treated like a talented artist, and I hold that value to this day,” Sager said. “I learned to be disciplined and take art seriously and push myself to get here.”