Art that makes a statement

Artists: Art that makes a statement


Art that makes a statement

Jerry Savage aims to comment on social issues with his paintings and sculpture.

Story: Jodi Heckel

Photos: Heather Coit

Jerry Savage of Sidney sees his career as an artist as a journey on the way to creating art that comments on contemporary social issues. His aim has been to create strong visual images that also impart some meaningful content.

On the way, he has worked in drawing, painting, sculpture, even stained glass.

Savage is a retired art professor from the University of Illinois School of Art + Design, where he taught painting.

He grew up in Hyde Park, an integrated Chicago neighborhood full of academics, artists and poets. His family didn’t have much money, but their apartment building included the Hyde Park Art Center, and Savage began taking art classes there at age 7.

Savage studied at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and attended graduate school at the University of Southern California. While at USC, Savage had a job in a stained-glass studio. He was asked to copy the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral in France.

He said working with visual symbols with a profound meaning had a great impact on him. He saw he could make the visual elements of his painting more meaningful, “but I couldn’t drop the cliches I was using.” So Savage switched to sculpture, using epoxy resins to make large sculptures that took him months to build.

He wanted to use his art to comment on social issues, but times were changing quickly and “I couldn’t spend that much time on one piece,” he said. In addition, Savage discovered the materials he was using for his sculptures aged quickly.

He returned to painting, choosing to make strong visuals that also commented on the complexity of life and on social issues.

“My paintings are always a celebration of life. But life is not a cakewalk. You have to solve problems. You have to tough it out,” Savage said. “But the human spirit is magnificent.”
One of his favorite paintings is called “All the Little Children.” It was part of an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in the 1970s.

The highly detailed painting shows children, standing on platforms above roiling water, holding hands and encircling a war memorial. The only grass on the platforms grows in the children’s shadows. Human forms with revolvers as heads race across the background.

Savage said the piece represents the memory of those killed in war, and it was a reaction to the political and social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s – both the Vietnam War and the social revolution.

A gallery owner once referred to his art as “think art” – not a compliment at a time when the pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein was prominent.

But Savage was interested in commenting on the complexities of society and life. He created a series of paintings called “Nocturns,” based on the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago.
In one painting, the buildings tower over the twisting lanes of the Dan Ryan Expressway. In another, horses thrust their heads out of the windows of the skyscrapers or flee, the terrified herd animals representing the life of the buildings, Savage said.

“When a building is abandoned, it begins to age dramatically. It dies, like a human being,” he said.

Savage moved to abstract paintings, and he later created a series of paintings called “Face Highways” that display his love of color and of visual anomalies and counterpoint – placing one movement on top of another, on top of another.

“I thought of my paintings as visual symphonies in motion and color and energy,” he said, noting he is very much influenced by composer Philip Glass.

The paintings are based on a scientific theory of the attraction of electrons in which they become one. The paintings show two heads interlocked, against backgrounds of vibrant colors representing a flowing universe. The original title Savage chose for the series was “Monogamous Entanglement.”

Savage has now come back to sculpture, as a “conceptual designer” for a company he formed called ALLS Inc., or Architectural Landscape Light Sculpture Inc. He is collaborating with architects and engineers to develop civic sculptures that use movement, color, light and landscaping to make the sculpture come alive.

He is working on a sculpture for a library in Aurora, depicting the transition from the printed word to the digital age. He has also submitted a proposal for a sculpture at the new Electrical and Computer Engineering building on the University of Illinois campus.

Savage said he wants to create sculpture in public places that will draw people to them.

“These are public gathering places where you want to bring your family, take a photograph, like Millennium Park,” he said.

Editor’s note: See a related story on Jerry Savage’s home in the “homes” section of this website.