Sage Vaughn: Gangster Sparrows and Butterfly Opera

Sage Vaughn: Gangster Sparrows and Butterfly Opera
Shannon Cottrell

For more photos check out our slideshow, Sage Vaughn: Studio Tour

Sage Vaughn, one of SoCal's favorite contemporary urban naturalist painters, is tucked inside a quaint and tidy mid century modern one story studio, located right where Pasadena ends. There's a small group of mourning doves that gather daily outside his door waiting for seeds, unnervingly oblivious to the occasional hawk overhead. Prime death watch viewing if he's not busy researching other concepts of animal behavior, whether it's a Wagner opera or in an inherited collection of vintage Hustler magazines.

This particular morning, upon LA Weekly's arrival, we find red velvet cupcakes and a mean cup of joe complete with hand frothed milk waiting for us. Not a typical artist interview welcome, but our man Sage is anything but typical -- evidenced by the ski mask he always wears tucked in his back pocket.

Recognized for his heart wrenching portraits of "gangster" birds, the bulk of Vaughn's work is comprised of realistic, beautifully rendered illustrations of house finches, sparrows, chickadees and the occasional crow sporting tattoos, medallions and other symbols of base human identity. Surprisingly, Vaughn could care less about his ornithological subjects.

"I have no special affinity for birds at all," he says. "I just find them to be the most interesting populated animal living in close contact, like rats, cockroaches or mice. They thrive here in the city. I started noticing that the markings and the territorial-ness really correlated to urban gangs. I saw them fight, dive, push each other out of the way - I just liked the connection. It was really the door opener for me to find that vein of material that I wanted to explore. Once I found that door... I wanted to be an artist."

Sage Vaughn: Gangster Sparrows and Butterfly Opera
Shannon Cottrell

An LA native who's married to rad fashion designer/makeup artist and Project Runway contestant Sweet P, Vaughn first became aware of his love for the urban habitat running with a graffiti crew when he was young. He associates coyotes with taggers and likens the areas homeless people created under viaducts at night to "nests."

"That's what I loved about painting graffiti," he admits. "Running around town like coyotes at night. You know, you can yell at coyotes and they'll turn to face you like, 'You talking to me?' Coyotes are amazing." What was Sage Vaughn's tag? He'll never tell.

Right on the heels of three new print editions for Venice print shop Post No Bills' just-closed show "Reality Bites," Sage will open a new show in collaboration with shark photographer Michael Muller with the gallery Lazarides in London Oct. 6. His solo show in San Francisco at Fifty24SF, beginning Nov. 19, shows his recent collection of color studies done on the backs of manilla envelopes. Done in lieu of traditional sketchbooks, they are proving to be highly collectible among his fans.

Sage Vaughn: Gangster Sparrows and Butterfly Opera
Shannon Cottrell

Breaking into new media, Vaughn recently finished two videos influenced by Wagner's Ring Cycle. The works are animated versions of Vaughn's large paintings of butterflies and brightly colored gypsy moths, beautifully set in motion to new music but edited to the pace of the original opera. He's looking for the right opportunity to show them. "Popular art these days seems to have no vernacular for beauty," concedes Sage. "Nobody really draws."

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