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Sculptor creates masterpieces of local legends

Friday, October 19, 2007 | 10:29 a.m. CDT; updated 7:13 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Sabra Meyer works on the face of a sculpture of Sainte Rose Philippine Duchesne in her basement studio in Columbia on Sept. 14.

COLUMBIA — The mouth is the hardest part of the human face to sculpt.

This may be hard to believe. The eyes, windows into the soul, or the complexity of hair — one of these must surely require more skill. But Sabra Tull Meyer says it’s the mouth, and it’s no great stretch to call her Columbia’s pre-eminent authority on the subject.

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Just ask Bob Barker, who was so pleased with Meyer’s bronze bust of him that he kissed its cheek and hers at its recent unveiling in the Hall of Famous Missourians. Or Norm Stewart, also a subject of Meyer’s handiwork, who cannot overstate his respect for her. “There’s just a flair for being able to see something — and transform that,” he says. “She has that ability to grasp what most people see in a person.”

The exceptional thing about Meyer’s art, Stewart makes clear, is that it’s not just grasping what most people see but also what they cannot describe.

Recognition is something we take for granted; we don’t take a lot of time to consider why it is we know exactly who someone is the moment we see him or her. Meyer, however, is required to shape this familiarity from a hunk of clay, which, if it’s done right, triggers a similar effortless identification. “Oh, that’s Bob Barker,” we think. “That’s John Ashcroft.” She also sculpted Missouri’s former senator and governor and the nation’s former attorney general.

Her sculptures are so recognizable that people call them “she” and “he” rather than “it.”

Meyer is always a student, pursuing information on anyone she sculpts with ravenous devotion. If she can’t spend time with the person, she finds biographies, pictures and anything else that might shed some light on exactly who he or she is. Columbia ophthalmologist Kell Yang, who commissioned Meyer to sculpt his daughters mid-dance, couldn’t be more pleased with her finished product.

“The essence of the art is not so much the execution but the understanding,” he says. “She got to know their personalities.”

Of course, knowing someone and creating a bronze likeness are at polar ends of the spectrum. The process of making a convincing sculpture is labor-intensive, and Meyer approaches her work with the precision and gravity of a surgeon. Starting with little more than a hunk of clay on a metal core, she pushes and “slaps” the shapeless mass with tools as well as her hands. As the statue begins to gain proportion, the work gets more specific, and the focus turns to feature and nuance.

Once Meyer is satisfied with her clay model, she brings it to a foundry, where models are made and the final product is cast from bronze. This can be an expensive step, sometimes half of Meyer’s commissions, which range from about $500 for a smaller piece to ten times that for larger-than-life figures.

Meyer doesn’t like to see her age in print, which works out because it doesn’t do her justice anyway. Suffice it to say that when she was growing up on the corner of University Avenue and Hitt Street, back when East Campus was a family-friendly neighborhood and Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House, Columbia was a drastically different place. And although she didn’t start professionally sculpting until the mid-1970s, Meyer’s heart has been pumping art since the first grade, when colored chalk was her medium of choice.

“I can still remember what a great feeling it was to sit back and look at what I’d drawn on a blackboard,” she says.

Art and Columbia are rooted deep within Meyer’s identity. Her great-great-great-grandparents came to town in the early 19th century, and she has a fierce pride when she speaks about her home. “I think it is a really special place to be,” she says. “If you can’t find something to do in Columbia ...“ She trails off, dismissing what is absurd to her.

A graduate of MU (three times over) and Hickman High School (just the once), Meyer has carved her name deep into the proverbial mid-Missouri picnic table. In addition to a lifetime of study here and 10 years teaching at Stephens College and William Woods University, she has an ever-burgeoning portfolio of sculpture displayed throughout the region.

You’d have to wander through this part of the state blindfolded to avoid ever seeing one of her works. They’re at the Columbia Public Library, Boone Hospital Center, the Boone County Government Center, Hickman High School, the MU campus, the Capitol in Jefferson City and Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport, among other places.

Of course, just because you’ve almost certainly seen a Sabra Tull Meyer piece at some point does not mean she’s attained the same kind of household celebrity as many of her subjects; portrait busts aren’t exactly the most glamorous art. Meyer’s metal heads often get all the attention, leaving their creator a hasty byline or no mention at all.

“A sculptor has to fight for every tiny bit of recognition,” she says.

Her husband says she has to be as perfect as she can be. “I don’t know how she can work down there for so long sometimes,” Jim Meyer says.

“Down there” refers to Meyer’s studio, in the basement of the couple’s Columbia home. Her workspace is well lit, spacious, carefully laid out and impeccably neat. (Sabra, never satisfied with “good enough,” is apologetic about even the most minimal clutter. “I’m not as organized as I would like to be,” she says.)

Testaments to her artistic aptitude hang from the walls, watercolors she painted before starting her sculpting career. She doesn’t do that anymore, not because she’s slowing down, but because she’s doing more than ever. The flow of commissions headed Meyer’s way is ever-growing; she recently completed a work to be placed in Jefferson City titled “the Corps of Discovery,” featuring nine-foot statues of Lewis, Clark and the rest of the famous expedition’s party. The enormous piece, which Meyer calls her favorite, is set to be unveiled in the spring. She has also begun work on a 54-foot-long three-dimensional mural to be placed in the Missouri Theatre, now being renovated.

“I just love the thought of keeping busy,” she says. “I have no desire to quit.”

While her four children were growing up, art was a hobby to Meyer. But over the years, she found more time to devote to what has become a profession.

“We live in the land of opportunity, but you have to work,” Meyer says. “Nothing comes easy.”

Art collector and longtime friend Laura Perez-Mesa of Columbia really doesn’t like talking to the press, but for Meyer, she’s willing to make an exception.

“Sabra is a prolific artist and I am always fascinated by the versatility of her work and her attention to detail,” says Perez-Mesa. “When I see what she has accomplished, I am amazed and sometimes I am just speechless.”


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