As a creative force, community leader, and bridge between cultures, few artists have had a greater influence in the Upper Midwest than Sara Balbin.
Her large metal, stone, and wood sculptures are found in public places, businesses and homes, regionally and around the world. These dynamic creative works, instantly recognizable as hers, interpret humanity and the surrounding environment. They illuminate the places and actions shaping life in the region. Balbin’s commissions have come from museums, colleges, businesses, town governments, tribal entities, and nonprofit organizations, as well as individuals. Her work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Wisconsin Arts Board, Wisconsin Humanities Committee, EAA Aviation Museum, Chequamegon Bay Arts Council, foundations, and patrons of the arts.
Balbin’s activities across northern Wisconsin have opened new opportunities for artists. As founder and first president of the Cable Hayward Area Regional Arts Council (CHARAC), she brought a focus for community arts activities to Ashland, Bayfield, Sawyer, and Washburn counties. In another initiative, Balbin’s enthusiastic support encouraged the conversion of Hayward’s closed Park Theatre into the Park Center, a performing arts venue that has hosted weekly events for more than a decade. She has also had a long working relationship with the Bayfield/Ashland/Washburn-based Chequamegon Bay Arts Council, participating in and supporting shows, workshops, and performances. Since 2018, Balbin has written a column for the regional Forest & Lakes Monthly magazine titled, “For the Love of Art,” that advocates for artists, events, councils, and health benefits of art.
While working as a certified art therapist, Balbin recognized the need for and benefit of meaningful creative work for individuals with disabilities. Collaborating with existing vocational and social service programs in Ashland and Hayward, she helped develop two nonprofit card businesses that integrated and supported the organization’s clientele. Taking this focus on disability a step further, in 2012 she co-founded See My Art Inc. (SMART), a nonprofit organization designed to integrate artworks by disabled artists into websites, events, public venues, even a grant-funded coloring book.
Balbin’s artistic links through her Cuban heritage led to presentations for the National Council of La Raza, shows in the US with other Cuban-American artists, and participation in a 1997 invitational art show in Cuba.
Balbin’s long relationship with the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) community has perhaps informed and inspired what may be her most meaningful work. The LCO Tribal Government commissioned thirty-two tribal elder oil portraits. On permanent exhibit in the tribal government buildings, Balbin’s detailed and imaginative paintings tell the story of each individual. The collection represents the generational heritage of this unique community. With biographies and illuminating essays, her art was shared in the book Spirit of the Ojibwe: Images of Lac Courte Oreilles Elders (Birchbark Books, 2012).