The unusual combination of what you see is as unexpected as the story of how Sara Balbin leaves her mark in the Northwoods, between Drummond and Cable in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
She is a welder with a woman’s touch, a native of Cuba who has earned the respect of Native American elders. Much began after she left her home in Chicago for Wisconsin’s black bear country during the early 1970s because “I like the adventure.”
If there is more to the story, she does not share it or seem bitter.
She arrived solo, knowing no one but her dog, and moved into a cabin with no running water or phone. Gary Crandall, the man who eventually would become her husband, moved to the area from Madison during the same decade.
“I married the mysterious gal in the cabin,” is how he explains it, with a shrug.
Now the two operate the rural Dragonfly Studio, where Sara finds delicate sculptures within sheets of industrial steel and fierce faces of elders on canvases of leather.
Most of her work is done on commission. That includes steel art installations for the Lac Courte Oreilles Veterans Memorial. One is of a 6-foot-tall eagle that sits atop a 10-foot post in Sawyer County.
In the book “Spirit of the Ojibwe” (Holy Cow! Press, $28.95) are 32 portraits of elders that she was hired to create as oil paintings. After the project, she says mentor James “Pipe” Mustache gave her a guardian spirit, named Obodashquanishi, as a sign of endearment and approval.
“I work in series, going from the figurative to the more abstract,” she says, to explain her mindset during work. Starting with the concept of “flowing waters” and moving to “healing waters” is one example.
The artist says she completed the American Birkebeiner five times – “I have to stay healthy for my art,” she surmises – and considers herself an Up North lifer.
“I like the winter, and I like the solitude,” she explains. “It’s when I produce my art, and hide.”
For more about her work: sarabalbin.com, 715-798-3848. Look for her huge dragonfly sculpture outside of the Cable Natural History Museum.
Studio visits are possible by appointment, and Sara will sell her work at the Cable Fall Festival on Sept. 27.
The Wisconsin Arts Board designates 2014 as the Year of Rural Art, to celebrate the vast array of creativity that comes from countryside workshops. It goes way beyond chainsaw sculptures and wildlife paintings. artswisconsin.org
Self-guided studio art tours occur throughout the state as autumn nears. What you’ll find will range from the practical (bird houses) to whimsical (art with recycled materials), landscape paintings to stoneware pottery.
Sometimes these events coincide perfectly with the changing of leaf colors, making for a lovely opportunity to experience the art of nature, too. Tour maps typically are posted online; some suggest driving routes and pinpoint nearby restaurants, lodging and public restrooms.
Consider the possibilities, even if the open-studio dates don’t work for you. Some stops are open at other times, too, or by appointment.
Head toward Lake Pepin and the Chippewa River Valley for the Fresh Art Tour, Oct. 3-5. Participants work in and near Arkansaw, Bay City, Durand, Maiden Rock, Nelson, Pepin, Plum City and Stockholm. freshart.org
Hidden Studios Art Tour, Oct. 3-5, features the work of 20 artists at nine work studios along the Ice Age Trail in central Wisconsin (Waupaca, Almond, Amherst, Amherst Junction, Nelsonville). hiddenstudiosarttour.com, 715-258-0195
Northwestern communities are the focus of the Falling Leaves Art Studio Tour, Oct. 4-5. At least 14 studios and 42 artists in and near Augusta, Fairchild and Fall Creek will participate. fallingleavesarttour.com, 715-286-2464
Rural Arts Roadtrip, in Calumet County, is an initiative that involves fine art and food on Oct. 10-12 in and near Chilton, Hilbert, Kiel, New Holstein and Potter. Travelers can watch up to 50 artists at work, visit farms, taste local ingredients and buy materials to create their own art. ruralartsroadtrip.com, 920-286-0971
The Fall Art Tour, Oct. 17-19, was one of the state’s first rural art tours, and the well-established event twists through the southwest communities of Baraboo, Dodgeville, Mineral Point and Spring Green. fallarttour.com, 608-588-7509
The Earth, Wood and Fire Artists Tour, Oct. 25-26, groups together 20 southern Wisconsin artists in and near Cambridge, Edgerton, Fort Atkinson, Jefferson, Johnson Creek and Lake Mills. earthwoodandfiretour.com
The Northwoods Art Tour, Oct. 10-12, pays attention to artwork produced in northeastern Wisconsin, from Tomahawk to Presque Isle, Mercer to Three Lakes. northwoodsarttour.com, 715-385-3334