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Famed artist helped make city what it is

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A beloved American artist passed away in her sleep Tuesday. Albuquerque’s Betty Sabo was 87.

Betty Sabo directs the installation of her sculptures at the University of New Mexico in 2004. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Betty Sabo directs the installation of her sculptures at the University of New Mexico in 2004. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Her landscape oil paintings and her sculptures have created a lasting legacy in public and private collections across the country.

“She fell peacefully asleep and didn’t wake up,” says her daughter Mary Sabo, a registered nurse, who added her mother had been diagnosed with severe dementia in 2005 and died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at a nearby assisted living center.

Of her many artworks, “her favorite was the St. Francis sculpture in front of the Basilica in Santa Fe,” Sabo says.

The statue of the saint stands with an outstretched welcoming hand.

Collector and friend Dorothy Rainosek, who has more than two dozen pieces of the artist’s works, both paintings and sculptures, remembers that trip to Santa Fe to meet with the archbishop.

“Betty had decided where she wanted the sculpture. She was a force to be reckoned with when she made up her mind,” Rainosek recalls of the meeting. “It was raining and Betty kept returning to the front, instead of a garden in the back. She got her way, of course.”

Although Betty Sabo started painting in the 1960s after she graduated from the University of New Mexico, fumes from the oils eventually made her ill, “so one morning she woke up and said, ‘I think I’ll be a sculptor,’ ” Mary Sabo remembers. Another of her mother’s favorites is a sculpture of Mother Teresa, now in Utah, she adds.

Rainosek and her husband, Larry, own the well-known Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque. She said Betty Sabo had approached her and Larry to help her fund materials and forging for the St. Francis sculpture that she planned to donate.

“That’s how she was,” Rainosek says. “She was always so generous.”

Betty Sabo began sculpting when she was 60. Her work is all over Albuquerque, including life-sized bronzes at the University of New Mexico, the sculptures of former Gov. Clyde Tingley and his wife, Carrie Tingley, at the city’s BioPark and the cattle drive sculpture, “La Jornada,” that she created with Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera, in front of the Albuquerque Museum. Betty Sabo was instrumental in founding the Albuquerque Museum, both Rainosek and Mary Sabo say.

Betty Sabo with her sculpture of St. Francis at the Basilica in Santa Fe. (Courtesy of Steve Palmisano)

Betty Sabo with her sculpture of St. Francis at the Basilica in Santa Fe. (Courtesy of Steve Palmisano)

“She led the effort. She fought tooth and nail,” the younger Sabo says. An art collection of notable New Mexico artists was being moved from Albuquerque High School and Betty Sabo kept the collection public when she found a home for it at the Albuquerque Museum. Sabo also founded the miniature show at the museum. The annual show raises money for the museum and the artists who show in it.

“She gave away more than she sold,” says filmmaker Steve Palmisano, who documented the artist’s life with a film in 2012, “Betty Sabo, an Artful Life.”

Her paintings are widely collected. One hangs in the presidential library of Ronald Reagan in Southern California.

Palmisano says one of Sabo’s artistic gifts was her ability to capture snow: “Her realistic scenes with snow really struck people. It was just amazing.”

Sabo says her mother was always supporting other artists and encouraging and promoting them. She donated art to the St. Joseph Foundation, to a leading hospital in Denver and to many other charitable causes. “Her philanthropic work was phenomenal. She was the salt of the earth. She loved Albuquerque and fought so hard to make it what it was. She will always be part of Albuquerque,” said the younger Sabo.

Betty Sabo was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Sept. 15, 1928, but moved to Albuquerque as a child. She attended Albuquerque High School and the University of New Mexico.

The younger Sabo remembers growing up on mesas that surrounded her Albuquerque home near the Tennis Club on Indian School Road.

“We were kids of the mesa. We rode our bikes from dawn to dusk while Mom painted,” Mary Sabo says.

She was about 7 years old when her mother married Dan Sabo, an engineer who adopted all five of Betty’s children. Dan Sabo passed away about 15 years ago. “He was the most wonderful man. He was the most supportive man.”

Mary Sabo says she is working with the Albuquerque Museum to plan a memorial. According to her mother’s wishes, the artist will be cremated. The family will make an announcement in the next day or so.

“I know a lot of people will want to be there,” Sabo says. “She lived a lovely life. I was proud to be her daughter.”

Sabo is survived by her five children, Mary Sabo, David Sabo and Theresa Martin, all of Albuquerque, Catherine Gore of Durango, Colo., and Nancy Sabo of Jemez Springs; and 11 grandchildren, Mary Sabo says.

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