|Stephen Sabo, owls from Desert Creatures.|
During April and May, Lindsay is presenting the work of such an artist who has only recently come to light. Stephen Sabo worked on our city's south side until his death in 2002 at the age of 99. His early years were spent in Murray City in southeastern Ohio. His formal education ended at age 14 when he was sent, like many a child, to work in the coal mines. Over the years he was able to leave the mines, move to Columbus and marry, working variously as a line man, machinist, self-taught taxidermist, father—and as perpetual autodidact. He loved simple pleasures of country masculinity to the end: hunting and fishing; whittling and carving in the peace and quiet of his basement at home.
Lindsay acquired Sabo's oeuvre last year. Sabo never promoted his own work beyond a local seniors' gift shop (the Golden Hobby Shop), so he was known to a limited community. Lindsay has recently shown the work at the New York Outsider Art Fair, where it was singled out for praise by Roberta Smith of the New York Times. It has also been presented in a solo show at the Springfield (Ohio) Art Museum.
This show is remarkable on the face of it for including work that spans at least eighty years.
|Stephen Sabo, Fish and Crayfish,|
14 x 16 x 8."
| Stephen Sabo, Two birds, 15 x 10.5."|
Wood mounted on panel.
On the other hand, Sabo couldn't have known natural postures without having spent considerable time observing live animals. I was fascinated by Sabo's footed, two-sided panel representing Birds North America on one side, with Animals of North America on the other. The creatures are carved in bas-relief in carefully planned designs that fit elegantly onto the panels. Birds, raccoons, and bison are all painted in true colors; the backgrounds are uniformly a creamy white with the exception of the blue around the mountain goats. Blue creates the sense that we are looking up at them, standing on a peak. That passage of blue sky clinches our sense of Sabo's sophisticated awareness, which lifts the work out of naive vision.
|Stephen Sabo, Animals of North America, |
23 x 13 x 2." (Two-sided, Birds verso)
|Stephen Sabo, Birds of North America.|
23 x 13 x 2." (Two-sided, Animals verso)
Yet it's the carving finesse that carries the day. The attitudes of the animals are completely engaging. The snippety cant of the blue jay on its branch; the little confrontation between mother and child squirrel posited in the positions of legs and tails; the pan-species maternal gesture in the doe with her nursing fawn. This work lacks the perfection of the fish tableau, but we find that there is technical latitude in Sabo's expressive powers.
The range of Sabo's subjects is broad enough and so free of outright eccentricity that I fancy him a member in good standing of a time-honored fraternity of American carvers and whittlers bent over their solitary work in basements, garages and huts while womenfolks occupy themselves elsewhere more gregariously. In Sabo's work we encounter a rural, folkloric man's world undisturbed by communications. Only the automotive and athletic aspects are missing from an other wise full plate of classic male folk subjects: Nature; Christian stories and subjects of narrative rather than passionate importance; tableaux of daily life—miners, farmers, Western characters, exotic peoples; circuses; raptors and dinosaurs. There are lots of dinosaurs.
|Stephen Sabo, Deer Trophy, wood and antlers.|
|Stephen Sabo, Dinosaur|
|Stephen Sabo, Dinosaur, view 2|
While some of Sabo's work—presumably later—is blockish and carved without the finesse that so marks the wildlife figures above, it seems to be invested with the carver's sense of curiosity and engagement nevertheless. One of the most delightful works in the show is Circus Horses, his presentation of a familiar inspiration for artists in every medium. Six horses and two ponies perform for a trainer who directs while a child performs a handstand on a pony's back. We've seen above that Sabo was once able virtually to breathe life into animal carvings. In this case, he cannot. The tableau abstractly represents the moment at the circus; none of the figures, equine or human, is naturalistically rendered.
|Stephen Sabo, Circus Horses, 10 x 24 x 21. Courtesy of the Lindsay Gallery.|
|Steven Sabo, Indian Village, impossible bottle, 20 x 12 x 12."|
Courtesy, Lindsay Gallery.
There's a tipi, and a large log that lies to one side.
|Stephen Sabo, Indian Village, impossible bottle, detail|
Stephen Sabo:Whittler, Tinkerer...Artist provides a particular opportunity to see a lifetime retrospective of the most condensed sort. That the work is undated is not the distraction one would at first think. I found myself thinking of the artist as an embodied human with aging faculties and body. He will either allow these to remove carving from his life; or he will adjust his carving to his changed abilities. With age's trembling of hands and fogging of vision, perception, awareness, and knowledge can continue to grow.
For anyone who ever wonders how people come to be artists or how they develop and what inspires them, this show is a wide-open door into just such a story of unusual accessibility. Sabo had a lot of simple interests, it seems, and he thought best when his hands were busy. In this show, it's not hard to see where artists come from, and that it's persistence and continuity of desire that make the difference.
|Stephen Sabo, Circus Horses, detail|