This is the story of Sage Vaughn.
“And they’re like, ‘Alright, thanks, you wanna leave your number?’”
Vaughn used to do smack back in the day. And smack, as anyone who’s done smack knows, comes in little plastic baggies. The little baggies led Vaughn to Tom Fruin, a drug enthusiast in his own right who saw the narcotic pouches the way Vaughn did: as objects worthy of art.
Vaughn discovered Fruin’s work—hundreds of pieces of the postage-stamp-sized paraphernalia sewn together to create a giant patchwork— in a magazine, and, being a bit wet behind the ears, called up the gallery where Fruin was exhibiting to offer up his own stash of heroin husks to the cause.
And actually, a couple days later, Tom Fruin showed up at Vaughn’s door in Silverlake, Los Angeles, and they hit it off. Fruin was surprised to learn Vaughn was an artist himself; he hadn’t thought to mention it in his phone call. “It’s kind of hard when you’re a grown man,” Vaughn laughs, recalling the first meeting. “You’re like,” he shrugs his shoulders and feigns awkwardness, adopting a cartoony, self-conscious voice, “Uh…I like you!”
Vaughn’s baggies did make it into Fruin’s work eventually, an ending to the story that was both therapeutic for Vaughn—who felt a sense of awe watching Fruin descend his porch with “a cigar box full of pain and bad choices and lies”—and serendipitous because it led to friendships, including one with Fruin, that are still intact today. When Vaughn visited New York City, Fruin introduced him to other artists, opening up a community that he didn’t have at the time back in Los Angeles. The piece created with Vaughn’s heroin paraphernalia now belongs to a private collector. “I don’t think he sold it for as much money as I spent buying all that heroin,” Vaughn says, laughing.
But see, the story gets even better: The magazine in which Vaughn saw Fruin’s work was Flaunt circa 2002, and now everything’s come back full circle: He’s the cover artist of your literary object du moment, dear reader. That shark—its viciously sharp teeth oozing with a trough of rainbow colors—is among the animal-infused color sprees Sage has become known for.
I meet Vaughn in his studio in Pasadena, California, in a non-descript building that’s demarcated as his workspace with only a small hand-painted sign. First, a look around:
His trademark butterflies and birds, of course, are there—huge swaths of canvases lay covered in them, leaning against walls and against each other. It’s a bit like being inside a butterfly farm. Though they’re beautiful in print, they’re much better in person, their hues more nuanced, and the birds, drawn first by hand on thin vellum before being pressed to the canvas and painted, are more delicate, their papery edges lifting from the canvas in spots, appearing three dimensional. Farther back, his “inspiration” wall, a slew of magazine clippings of indigenous tribes; found art by way of yard sales and The Salvation Army signed by their otherwise anonymous creators; and inside jokes from a time when Vaughn and a friend used to gift each other lewd messages via the U. S. Postal Service, just to test the boundaries of postman censorship (the U.S. Postal Inspection Service called, asking if he thought he might have a stalker, and the game flagged). Next to that, baseball bats with spiked heads of nails (pieces surprisingly most often purchased by females, Vaughn says), and a wall of masks and totems Vaughn makes for kicks to explore other cultures’ rites of passage.
“It’s an awful day. We need to be very nice to each other,” Vaughn says as he hands us water in a pair of black mugs he designed. It sounds corny to say it, but it seems that a sentence like that represents Vaughn’s perspective as a whole. He’s an easygoing dude, warm right from the start, even though he’s a hardly sleeping father to a newborn and is meeting a journalist at the peak of the day in 100-degree weather.
I mention that I was half hoping to see a baby upon opening the door, and it takes about four seconds before he’s handing over his iPhone so I can look at the photos of his newly adopted baby boy Jasper Donovan Vaughn, a little dumpling of a human with a ton of fine hair.
Later on, when we’re settled in and Vaughn’s shared on his grandmother, a Jewish woman from Brooklyn “without a filter to speak of,” and his father, an Imagineer at Disney for 15 years who taught Sage to draw, I ask if he wants Jasper to be an artist one day.
“I mean, like...seriously? No.”
I’m surprised. It seems a pretty good gig if you can find enough success to rub two coins together.
“I rarely like artists, like as people,” he explains. “They’re a little self-involved, and a little…” he grapples for a diplomatic adjective, “…intense, at best.” Vaughn admits the gig is good, and that, in the end, it’s his kid’s decision if he wants to go that route, but he finds the whole art world a little pretentious. It wasn’t until several years ago that he would even call himself an artist.
Now, looking around his studio at art he’s shown at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and internationally, he admits he’d be a dick not to. I ask him to tell us about what we’re looking at, and he pauses to think. “There’s a lot of fucking butterflies…Hmm.” He lifts his cap off his head, revealing curls, then pops it back on. “Let’s see. Let’s start with the sharks.”
Vaughn’s recent work—which includes the aforementioned cover of this very magazine—is part of a collab effort with Hollywood (and Flaunt) portrait photographer Michael Muller, who also does underwater photography. Muller and Vaughn met through a mutual friend, and now they surf together. “In his spare time—on his own dime—he goes from shooting, like, perfectly lit Scarlett Johansson [photographs] to ‘I’m gonna go jump in the water with a bunch of sharks.’ I was like, ‘Okay, you sound like a fun guy.’”
The shark paintings are Vaughn’s first foray into aquatic animals, save a few fish paintings that have never seen the light of the public gaze. Typically, he paints birds and butterflies against the bleak backdrops of urban landscapes—hovering helicopters, smoggy freeways, hoops of rusty barbed wire. With Muller, Vaughn painted his signature pinnate creatures into the inky waters where Muller photographed great white sharks. “You know, it’s funny. The idea of the actual meaning of the animals that I’ve painted has been getting pretty obscured lately. I’ve just been using them to make these bigger shapes, like these giant rings, so the idea of any kind of individuality has just gotten blurred, just clustered and put into these big rings.” On either side of the table where we sit lean enormous canvases bearing the imagery he’s talking about. If you blur your eyes a bit, you might think you’re looking at a giant donut, not hundreds of intricately drawn butterflies. “It’s nice to get back to the idea of what these individual animals could mean.”
The sharks, though, are a temporary exploration. “We want it to stay something special, and we don’t want to oversaturate it.”
Next, he’s working on a series for a show in London called “Nobody’s Home,” in which animals wander into finely furnished homes devoid of human existence. He drops an interior design magazine on the table by way of explanation. “It’s like, look: If you can buy enough of this replica design furniture, you can maybe punch through that middle-class ceiling and have all the accessories of being rich. But, like,” he drops his index finger onto an image of an immaculately unsullied bathroom. “Nobody fucking stacks towels like that. Nobody does that! Nobody lives there.” He continues flipping pages and pointing, increasingly agitated by the stupidity of the imagery but clearly enjoying himself. “Nobody has that. Nobody fucking does that. Nobody puts a big book like that under their coffee table.”
The absence of humans from the environments they created is a common theme in Vaughn’s work. Animals appear in human habitats, but they rarely interact with their bipedal counterparts.
We veer into a discussion of exotic pet ownership, which, it turns out, Vaughn knows a lot about, enough to form a few opinions on the matter.
“There’s this part of us that interferes, and it fucks things up and can never be righted,” he says, his tattooed arms raised in front of him to punctuate his point. “And when it happens to natural things—well, it’s better to live in a world where you can get killed [by an animal] at any moment than, like, there’s a monkey wearing a dress and it’s kind of addicted to cigarettes and it ate its owner’s face. You know what I mean? It gets so fucking gross and ugly…To me, it’s the worst thing.”
A bird sitting on a telephone pole—an obvious modification of the tree it was carved from, but a habitat just the same—high above the pulse of humanity below, has an appeal for Vaughn. “In the midst of my day, when I’m thinking about all the future shit I need to get done, and what I said in an email and all this other stuff, if there’s a moment when I can focus on something like that, it brings me very into the present. Which is usually a nice place to be. I’ll see a weird number of birds spaced on a telephone line […] and all of a sudden, I’m a little bit more aware.”