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The woodcarvings of Columbus, Ohio artist Stephen Sabo sat in storage for many years after his death in 2002. Sabo had very little exposure in his lifetime but continued to make his artwork over seven decades. “Whittler, Tinkerer…Artist” explores the life and work of this unsung folk master.
Stephen Sabo, 1903-2002
Born in 1902 in Murray City, Ohio, Stephen Sabo was the son of Hungarian immigrants, Joseph and Katalin Sabo. The family lived in a tiny house in New Town, a coal mining company town built right next to Murray City, carved out of the deep woods of Wayne National Forest. Sabo started school when he was 7 years old, then dropped out in order to help his family at the tender age of 14. After finishing just the eighth grade, young Sabo walked into Murray City Mine #5, entering a world of backbreaking labor that was dangerous even for men twice his age. But that’s what boys did in southeast Ohio in 1917. Even at 14, Sabo understood that the entire arrangement was meant to keep workers indebted to the mine companies. In fact, he called mine work “slavery.”
In 1922, the Sabo family moved to the south side of Ohio’s growing capital city of Columbus. There, he went to work as a W.P.A. lineman, then a machinist, continuing to hone his skills working with metal and tools. He was sitting on the curb whittling outside of the family’s Innis Avenue home when he met his wife, Anna. They were wed in 1935, enjoying a 65-year marriage, two sons, and ultimately, nine grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.
Referring to Sabo’s penchant for collecting scraps of metal and wood to fuel his artwork, Anna once said, “When he left the house and went into the alleys, you never knew what he’d come back with.” In fact, only once in his 60-plus years of carving, did Sabo pay for a piece of wood or metal. He once purchased a sizeable block of white pine, from which he carved a large bald eagle atop the Liberty Bell.
In the 1930s, Sabo and his two brothers parlayed their love of fishing and hunting into a taxidermy business, finishing the deer, bobcat and other spoils of local hunters. Yet another self-taught talent, Sabo and his brother learned the art of taxidermy from books, trial and error.
In the 1940s the war halted Sabo’s beloved carving. Metal and wood scraps dried up. Sabo began working 14-hour days at the machine shop to help with the war effort. That left precious little time — and even fewer materials — for something as frivolous as a hobby. It would be more than two decades before Stephen Sabo would resume carving. But when he did, he wasted no time churning out amazing works. Many were inspired by time spent hunting, fishing and creating taxidermy. Others were sparked by colorful photos of animals and natural history gleaned from National Geographic Magazine.
Stephen Sabo retired in 1974 at the age of 71. But he continued to carve into his 90s, despite the slow deterioration of his once-keen eyesight, he passed away in 2002.