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Meet The People: Sage Adams on Gender Expression + Growing Art Hoe Collective

By Alyssa Shapiro

Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, Sage Adams is a 23-year-old artist, curator, and creative director for the multi-Grammy-nominated artist SZA's 2017 album, 'Ctrl', a working relationship that began with a sartorially complimentary DM. Mx. Adams is also co-founder of Art Hoe Collective which utilizes Instagram to promote primarily queer BIPOC artists and other underrepresented individuals, a platform through which they curate works and also program events. They are an artist, yes, “but my passion is bringing people together to do cool stuff,” they told YTTP. It’s a passion that caught Youth To The People’s attention.


Alyssa Shapiro: Can you tell me about your involvement in Art Hoe Collective?

Sage Adams: The program has kind of changed because we’ve all gotten older, but we’ve switched to a grant model. We still do our curation through those grants and we pick artists through that. We had started planning a grant program as a way to physically give back to our communities before COVID. Then it hit. There was obviously a lot of tension in terms of the uprising and Black Lives Matter, so we wanted to give direct aid. 

The grant program looks like this: we do different rounds and each round has a different focus on a demographic. We’ve done Black trans women submissions and then we’re doing queer, non-white artists right now. The person just sends in their work, pronouns, what they’re about, some of their work, and why they might need these funds. We go over every submission as a group—there’s about seven of us—and we pick about five winners each round or so. Those people get a certain monetary amount as disclosed. It’s usually $500 or more, which has been really cool because it’s nice to see artists that aren’t necessarily popular, [but you’re] giving them the ability to keep on with their practice, even though they don’t feel as seen as other people. 

AS: Where does the money for the grants come from?

SA: The money for the grants mostly consists of fundraising that we do via Instagram, but the initial grant round was actually funded by a project that we did, an influencer project that we did, as a collective.

The idea was that like any extra funds that we get from influencing gigs as a collective go into the Art Hoe micro grant fund. People have been really amazing and generous with their donations, so much so that we're probably going to be able to keep the grant program running for another six months, which is really cool.

AS: Can you tell me a bit about your art, what you’re working on now, and what you’ve found inspiring lately?

SA: My art right now is a lot of drawing and a lot of watercolor. I also have been hand-dyeing, which is really fun. Mostly I would describe my style as “inner child.” The idea is to be able to actually enjoy the art that you’re making, and not feel like it’s this serious thing that’s so scary, weird, and intimidating. 

I had a hard time with that, because I went to a really white-washed school. The kids were really privileged. They wasted a lot of materials, like they did not really care about the stuff they were making. It was really frustrating for me to see. When I make art, I want to have the seriousness of the craft, but the fun of the fact that I know this is not going to be perfect, but I’m having fun making it and that’s why I’m making it. 

A lot of my art kind of seems, I guess, childish, which is fine to me. I don’t really care. It’s not like I’m trying to make stick figures—that’s genuinely just how I can draw the best and I feel I represent the best on paper. For me, it’s about expression and how I think the world sees me. And yeah, sometimes I see myself as a little stick figure trying to navigate.

AS: I think it was Picasso who said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

SA: Yeah. I absolutely agree. Obviously it’s important to learn technique, but all the best painters, like Picasso, start with knowing all of the basics. They know how to draw normally and stuff like that, to do realism. To get into surrealism, to get free in art, after you learn the things, you have to be able to get rid of them.

AS: And having that background to know what rules you want to break is key. What do you do to get your inner child to rise to the surface?

SA: I’ll try something and I’ll try to do it with technique, and then if that is really not looking the way I need it to, I just have to completely abandon the technique. I definitely give it a try with doing an underpainting, you know, doing a color study, doing a shading study before I start something. But sometimes those are the projects that, to me, are the ugliest projects that I do. If I’m doing something and I want it to be really realistic, the best thing I can do is draw a stick figure first, rather than try to get all the shading right and get the proportions correct. Drawing from shapes and stuff like that, seeing something as a bunch of circles instead of seeing it as something super complicated is really helpful to me. 

AS: What’s fueling your work right now?

SA: What fuels my work is a sense of nostalgia and then also a need, not for representation, because I feel like that word is almost overused, but to create new dialogue about old things. Conversations about physicality and gender and being happy or not being happy and mental health, all of those things that obviously play a huge part in my life show up on paper frequently. So I try to just let it. Like I try not to read too far into it because I know it's going to be coming from me, so it's coming from my experience, therefore means all of these things inherently. I try not to get caught up, like ‘I'm making this because it means this.’ Sometimes you don't see what it means until you're done. And then you're like, wow, I unpacked a lot here.

AS: What causes are important to you?

SA: Helping people, and especially like young people, see themselves before they become older people. I'm also working with this camera company on getting all these young girls in Newark these film cameras to document their summer and what 2020 looks like for them.

I just think it's really cool because it's like when I was 14, no one cared what my world looked like, like that just was not important. The cause that has ultimately driven my life's work is really helping people see themselves before it's too late, before they think that this is who I am and I'm locked in and I have to be this way. It's like, no, like, here are some images from 20 girls from Newark. You could do anything you want, you know what I mean? It's important to me because people gave me that opportunity and it's an immense privilege to be able to see that you can do more than what you imagine.

AS: I love that so much. I really want to see what these girls are producing, because we need more validation of kids and their visions of the world and their perspectives. That validation is an investment in how future adults treat the world and treat each other.

SA: Absolutely! And who’s to say that these aren’t going to be the kids who are writing history? Who’s to say that if aliens came, they’re not gonna find this camera and see this documentation of the world, rather than look through a bunch of Vogues or an archive or something?

AS: Absolutely. How have you shaped your life around the causes that are important to you?

SA: Because the causes that are important to me are very me, like they come out of necessity, they've kind of shaped my life more than I have oriented my life around these causes. They’re kind of natural to me. Sometimes people don't necessarily enjoy the activism work that they have to do, because it feels genuinely like a burden. You have to educate people and help people understand your perspective, but what's so amazing about being a kid is that kids inherently understand other kids' perspectives on things.

When people, as adults, are thrown back to that mindset—when they see doodles, when they see soft colors, when they see construction paper—they're a little bit more open to everything. That's how I've changed—to live my life more close to the causes that I care about.

I try to be genuine and curious and keep making stuff and engaging my friends in things that we care about and putting our hands on stuff. Just still living as if I was a kid, because otherwise I would be bored! So, I just try to stay curious for sure.

AS: What does a perfect community look like to you?

SA: I think a perfect community to me would be one that holds each other accountable with love, because that's kind of the thing about being a community. You can kick people out of the community, but at the end of the day, you might only have yourself if you kick everyone out. Being in a community is like a contract. You're making a decision to be actively a part of a group that you care about and are going to invest in.

One of those investments is education. I think that “with love” is a really important thing just because like, you catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar. And while I definitely agree that like, sometimes people just need to shut up, I also agree that sometimes people just need to listen. And it can't just be shut up with no listen.

AS: When you think about the future, what do you get most excited about?

SA: When I think about the future, I get most excited about the fact that it's going to be different than what's happening right now. I don't really know in what way, and I'm never like, Oh, it's going to be better because as someone who grew up in the 2000s, I really did not think the world could get worse than what's happening. For me, it’s always going to be different. And I think that's really cool because then there's always going to be different things to do, always going to be ways to fix it, always ways to get involved. And if we lived in a utopia, we wouldn't know it was the utopia, so it's important that we have these dystopic moments so we can realize that we still need to fix things. The future to me, like a perfect future, like an ideal future, is where everyone is able to acknowledge that things might not be getting necessarily better, but are definitely changing.

AS: It’s like having the shadows so you can appreciate the light. 

SA: A hundred percent. Exactly.

AS: If you could get the world to change its collective mind about something important to you, what would it be? 

SA: It would definitely be about gender. I really think that we are stuck on something that does not aid us in many ways and honestly just ends up promoting violence towards primarily Black trans women. It just stinks that one group of people have to bear the brunt of [working for] gender equality. It’s frustrating, and I don't know if it's something that's going to change in my lifetime, which is scary. If I had a wish, it would be that people really just get it together around gender. 

AS: Are you open to talking a bit about your experience and if you’ve noticed a change with people’s acceptance of gender in your life?

SA: I definitely grew up with the immense privilege of going to like the most liberal school in New York City. This sounds ridiculous, but I hadn't experienced any sort of homophobia really until I got to maybe like sixth grade. Even at my school, it's like, if you said something, you know, that's gay, like everyone would be like, what are you talking about? Like what is it that's supposed to mean? Because we had so much like exposure.

For me, the people who know me very much understand where I'm at with gender. And that's why I kind of am hesitant, I guess, to talk about it on my platform just because I feel like I've lived a decently gender-free life. And I don't think that is everyone's experience, so I think it would be a little unfair for me to be like, it's so easy to have people accept you or it's so easy when people mis-gender you. I go by four pronouns—she, her, they, them.

It’s confusing to people. It definitely gives people anxiety because they don't want to hurt my feelings. And at least the people in my life, I find that that is their kind of experience with pronouns. They don't want to hurt my feelings. They're my friends, family, but they don't always understand. I don't think anyone really has to understand, for me, that's just not where I am in my gender journey. I don't need people to understand me. 

I think that going by two sets of pronouns is hard for me because I know that for some people that means that it invalidates my gender experience to them—I'm less non-binary because I go by two sets of pronouns and people have a tendency to just like ignore the they/them pronouns and only use she/her pronouns. But the reason I do that is because I'm not going to stop my day because you decide that you don't want to use my pronouns. It’s counterproductive for me because I don't want to have my feelings hurt constantly about this thing that I don't care that much about at the end of the day. People could call me he/him on the street. I wouldn't care. People do call me he/him on the street, like old people, when my hair is short, and that’s fine. I know they're talking to me, so it's okay. 

Again, that's just my experience with gender. Some people really want to use they/them pronouns because it reinforces their identity. For me, I have lived a very non-gendered experience so it's like, whatever, it's on the table for me. I guess that's kind of complicated, but yeah. 

AS: Because you allow more pronouns for yourself, it almost invalidates labels and pronouns.

SA: Right! It’s like, at this point that’s kind of where I am with using all pronouns, because I just want it to be null and void. Like, that's what I want it to be. I don't want to stop my day because you don't want to use a certain word, because you're confused about how it works. That gives you the power to demean me whenever you want. And I'm not going to accept that and don't have time for it—literally.

So like, I totally understand the theydies and gentlethem who just go by they/them or ze/zim. Like I got it. I understand, but for me, it's just not my expression. It's just not how I express myself.

AS: What does it mean to dream beyond?

SA: To dream beyond means to almost not know that there's a box. It's to not visualize the room that you're trapped in. It's to completely throw out all of your preconceived notions about what the future might be. To dream beyond is to literally think bigger than what your experience is.